According to the World Health Organization fact sheet based on data from 2016, the world’s leading causes of death were ischemic heart disease and stroke, which combined, were responsible for a total of 15.2 million deaths that year. Pulmonary heart disease came in at third and was responsible for 3.2 million deaths. Yes, you’re reading that right – two of the world’s top 3 killers for 2016 were heart diseases.
While some risk factors such as family history, sex, age, and race are out of your control, you can still improve your lifestyle to mitigate your risk of heart disease. Adopting healthy habits today can make a difference in your health and may even reverse certain diseases. Here are some tips to help get you on the right track.
Watch What You Eat
Diet is perhaps one of the most important factors in preventing and controlling heart disease. In particular, there are two types of nutritional substances you need to watch out for: sugar and trans fat.
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that sugar is the next global health problem after tobacco. Studies have shown that an excess intake of sugar – not fat as previously believed – is responsible for the global increase in the number of cases of heart disease. In a 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, a team of researchers found that there is a positive correlation between a high-sugar diet and a greater risk of heart disease. The study, which took 15 years, found that subjects who got 17% to 21% of daily calorie consumption had as much as 38% greater risk of dying from heart disease compared to the rest of the study participants.
Another area of concern when it comes to diet is the consumption of trans fats. Trans fat is basically the product of adding hydrogen to vegetable oils to make them more solid. Companies use them because they are easier to use due to added viscosity, are inexpensive to make, and last longer than traditional oils as they can be used many times over before needing replacement Sounds like a win-win, right?
For food companies perhaps, but not for the consumer. Trans fats raise the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in your body, which contributes to the build-up of fat in your arteries. At the same time, trans fats also lower the amount of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the “good” cholesterol, in your body.
Before you go and throw out all the fat and oil from your pantry, however, keep in mind that fat is good. Healthy fats made from plant-based sources such as avocado, olives, and nuts actually work to reduce the amount of LDL in your bloodstream, but any positive effect they may have can be negated by excess carbohydrate and sugar consumption.
To help keep heart disease at bay, it is recommended to:
- Eat a good amount of healthy fat, such as nuts, herbs, olives, olive oil, and avocado.
- Limit consumption of sugars and carbohydrates
- Increase consumption of vegetables and fruits, but avoid fruit juices
- Consume fish from healthy sources around twice a week
Keep On Moving
Excess weight around your gut area is another risk factor for not only heart disease but for other conditions including high blood pressure and diabetes as well. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderately intense physical activity, and half that for vigorous aerobic activity.
While tracking body mass index (BMI) can be a relatively helpful tool to see if you are at a healthy weight, keep in mind that BMI tracking has its flaws.
For one thing, muscle is denser and weighs more than fat. A muscular person can have a relatively high BMI and still be the picture of cardiovascular health, while an underweight person can still have a poorly functioning heart.
Get Some Good Shut-eye
Although you may not realize it, your sleep (or lack thereof) can profoundly affect your cardiac health. While the exact mechanisms behind how sleep and heart disease interact with each other are poorly understood, studies have shown that there is a correlation between too little (and too much) sleep and heart disease.
For example, the European Heart Journal conducted a review of 15 studies that researched sleep and heart disease trends and found that people who were chronically sleep-deprived had as much as a 48% increased risk of heart disease. Interestingly enough, the same study also found that participants who had more than 9 to 10 hours of sleep a day had a 38% increased chance of heart disease as well.
Another study in 2008 done by the University of Chicago found a link between chronic sleep deprivation and an increase in calcium deposits in coronary arteries. The same study also found a link between chronic lack of sleep and hypertension as well.
Mounting evidence reveals a strong correlation between smoking and heart disease, but it bears repeating that the use of tobacco products is one of the most significant factors that influence your risk of developing the disease.
For one thing, chemicals found in cigarettes and released through burning find their way into your heart and lungs and promote the build-up of plaque in arteries. This plaque build-up limits the flow of blood to your heart and other parts of the body and eventually leads to a disease called atherosclerosis, which is the hardening of arteries. When it comes to heart disease, there is no “safe” level of smoking.
Thankfully, studies have also shown that the risk of heart disease is significantly reduced as soon as one year after quitting smoking, so there is hope yet.
Certainly, the use of medication, when appropriate, can be beneficial, but they should be adjunct to lifestyle improvements rather than a replacement of personal responsibility for our health. Healthy lifestyle changes have been proven time and again to dramatically reduce risk factors, stabilize plaques in the arteries, and reverse the progression of heart diseases. Furthermore, this simple and inexpensive method can improve your quality of life.