Most of us think heart health is something we need to be concerned with only at middle age or worse - when something has actually gone wrong with our hearts.
But heart disease isn't just something that affects the elderly, and it is the UK's biggest killer.
"It’s not an old man’s disease anymore,” said Dr. Siddharth Gandhi, an interventional cardiologist at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center. “Heart disease affects men and women and now, unfortunately, at younger ages."
The British Heart Foundation, which is running a Ramp Up The Red campaign this month, says: "It kills nearly one in six men and more than one in ten women and is responsible for almost 74,000 deaths in the UK each year, an average of 200 people each day. There are currently 2.3 million people in the UK living with coronary heart disease."
High blood pressure, excessive drinking and sedentary lifestyles are to blame, but the BHF also revealed that the number of people with atrial fibrillation has rocketed. "It's a dangerous heart rhythm disorder that increases the risk of stroke five-fold," they say.
HuffPost UK Lifestyle spoke to Dr Paul Zollinger-Read, chief medical officer for Bupa, who revealed: that in the UK, it is responsible for almost 74,000 deaths each year - an average of 200 people every day.
“Coronary heart disease begins with damage to the lining and inner layers of your coronary arteries. Your coronary arteries supply essential oxygen-rich blood to your heart. Several factors can contribute to this damage, such as smoking, high cholesterol, poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle and diabetes. Plaque builds up where the arteries are damaged – this may even start in childhood – and over time, plaque can harden narrowing your coronary arteries and reducing the flow of blood to your heart."
There are risk factors, he says, such as family history of early heart disease, or if you have diabetes and/or are overweight.
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The London Bridge Hospital says that one of the biggest contributors to rising levels of heart disease is stress.
Dr Tom Stevens, consultant psychiatrist says: “I believe most 'mental' stress today in urban societies is a result of the rise in complex human communication we encounter and the associated demands on our brains as opposed to the rest of our body.
"Stress can be difficult to measure, but in my opinion, technology, including mobile phones, emails and social media, is one of the key leading causes. This can impact on your ability not only to concentrate, but can also lead to fatigue, sleep disturbance and mood swings.”
But the good news is that a lot of heart disease is preventable, and the younger you are when you start making changes, the better.
Dr Zollinger-Read says: "Most cardiovascular diseases can be prevented by leading a healthy lifestyle. Not smoking, eating a healthy, balanced diet and keeping physical active are all key to greatly reducing your risk."
If you think you've read it all before, it's still worth taking seriously. Dr Zollinger-Read says that even one risk factor doubles your risk for coronary heart disease.
"Two increases your risk four-fold and three, more than tenfold. Talk to your GP if you think you may be at high risk of heart disease."
Nutritionist Henrietta Norton, founder of Wild Nutrition recommends that a good way of getting healthy isn't just to avoid processed foods, but to actively eat foods that support the heart.
"The omega 3 fatty acids found in oily fish and nut and seed oils such flaxseed and walnut are have been shown to be especially beneficial for cardiovascular health," she says.
"Oatmeal also contains omega 3 but has the advantage of important minerals such as magnesium, calcium, Vitamin B3, B12 and Folate all of which also play an important role in heart health."
Robyn Coetzee, specialist dietician at London Bridge Hospital also mentions the importance of managing cholesterol levels.
“Foods rich in fibre have been shown to help lower blood cholesterol levels. They are low in fat and are filling, so eating these foods also help to control your weight.
"High fibre foods include fruit and vegetables, wholegrain cereals and breads, wholemeal flour, brown pasta, brown rice, breakfast cereals based on wheat and bran, oats and pulses like, beans, peas, and lentils. Aim for at least five servings of fruit and vegetables per day and try to incorporate other high fibre foods such as breads, cereals and legumes into your diet on a daily basis.”
How do you check your pulse properly?
- Put one of your hands out so you’re looking at your palm.
- Use the index/first finger and middle finger of your other hand and place the pads of these fingers on the inside of your wrist.
- You should place them at the base of your thumb near where the strap of a watch would sit.
- Press lightly and feel the pulse. If you can’t feel anything press slightly harder or move your fingers around until you feel your pulse
- Once you’ve found your pulse, continue to feel it for about 20-30 seconds. Feel the rhythm of the pulse and check if it’s regular or irregular
At present, there is an ongoing debate about what's worse for you: sugar or fat?
On that subject, Henrietta says: "Research suggests that when these two are combined, for example in pastries and many convenience foods, unwanted cholesterol can rise and good cholesterol can decrease. This combination has also been shown to contribute to atherosclerosis, the furring of the arteries and ultimately restriction of blood flow to the heart. The key is a healthy diet eating foods as close to nature as possible."
Her seasonal recommendations for heart health foods in February include: "This is the month of the carrot and the recent publication of results from a 10-year study demonstrated that those orange or yellow fruits and vegetables were the most protective for the heart and cardiovascular system. The carotenoid content of carrots is what gives them their lovely orange hue and is also the plant chemical shown to reduce oxidative stress in the body."
It may be hard to take all of this information on board, but Dr Zollinger-Read pragmatically says: "Your heart is designed to last a lifetime so think carefully about what changes you can make to support your heart health. My overaching advice is to quit smoking if you smoke, reduce the amount of salt in your diet, eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, stay as active as possible and drink alcohol in moderation."
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