February is Heart Month - a time when all people are encouraged to focus on their cardiovascular health. "Heart disease is the second leading cause of death in Canada" (1). People who are most at risk for heart disease are those with high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and diabetes. Several other conditions and lifestyle choices can put you at a higher risk of heart disease, such as: (2)
Smoking or chewing tobacco
Lack of physical activity
Excessive alcohol use
Symptoms of Heart Disease
Numerous risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure can lead to heart disease. If left untreated, it can progress to a stroke, heart attack, and/or coronary artery disease. Common signs and symptoms of heart disease include: (3)
shortness of breath
If you are experiencing these symptoms, consult with your health care provider to learn more about your risk and if your symptoms are related.
What Behaviors Increase the Risk of Heart Disease
Lifestyle choices can greatly increase your risk for heart disease. Things like:
Eating a diet high in saturated fats, trans fat, and cholesterol has been linked to heart disease and related conditions.
Too much sodium in your diet can raise your blood pressure which increases your risk for heart disease.
Not getting enough physical activity can lead to heart disease and increase the risk for other conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
Drinking too much alcohol can also raise blood pressure and increase your risk for heart disease, and any tobacco use increases your risk of heart disease and heart attack.
Genetic factors such as family and medical history, ethnic heritage, age, and sex can also increase your risk of heart disease. Learn more about risk factors you cannot control.
Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations for Heart Health
A healthy diet and lifestyle are the keys to preventing and managing cardiovascular disease, along with many other conditions. It doesn’t have to be hard! Even just small changes can make a big difference if you are consistent. Don't think of these changes as a temporary diet but as a change in your overall pattern. Make some of these simple steps below for long-term benefits to your overall health and your heart:
Eat an overall heart-healthy diet. Consume lots of vegetables and fruits (filling half your plate with vegetables and fruit at every meal and snack). "Vegetables and fruit are packed with nutrients (antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibre) and help you maintain a healthy weight by keeping you full longer" (4).
Choose whole grains such as oatmeal, brown or wild rice, and whole-grain bread. (4)
Fill a quarter of your plate with protein-rich foods such as legumes, lean red meats, nuts, seeds, tofu, and fish (4).
Foods and drinks to limit include highly processed foods, added sugars, high-sodium items, soda, and alcohol.
Increase the amount and intensity of your physical activity. You should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-vigorous physical activity per week (5). Being physically active is a major step toward good heart health and leading a healthy lifestyle.
"Just as a variety of foods is important for healthy eating, a variety of activities is important for healthy living. Choose physical activities that require endurance, strength and flexibility" (5). Below are suggestions for activities from moderate to vigorous effort (5):
Light effort: light walking, stretching, gardening
Moderate effort: dancing, biking, water aerobics
Vigorous effort: jogging, fast swimming, basketball
Cigarette smoking and using other tobacco products greatly increase your risk for heart disease. If you currently smoke but would like to quit, you can create your own personalized plan to quit (6).
As always, you can and should consult a healthcare professional such as your physician or pharmacist who can also help you take the proper steps to quit for good.
Work with your healthcare team. You and your healthcare team, like your physician and pharmacist, can work together to prevent or treat any conditions that may lead to heart disease. Discuss this treatment plan regularly, and bring any questions you have to all your appointments. If you've already had a heart attack, your healthcare team will work with you to prevent another one. If your treatment plan includes medications, be sure to take any medications as directed and tell your pharmacist if you are experiencing any side effects.