Heart disease – also known as cardiovascular disease or coronary artery disease – is a global epidemic in both men and women. But most heart problems can be avoided provided one takes necessary measures, according to Dr Qian Rongrong, a cardiologist at Beijing United Family Hospital and Clinics (BJU).
These measures include eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and having yearly screenings to detect potential problems.
The heart is a muscular organ that pumps oxygenated blood to all parts of the body. Like any other muscle, the heart needs oxygen to perform its work. The coronary arteries deliver oxygenated blood to the heart so it can then pump the blood to the rest of the body. Gradual buildup of fat and cholesterol (plaque) along the walls of the coronary arteries narrows the channels through which the blood must flow. A blockage in one of these narrowed arteries can lead to heart attack or stroke.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death globally. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2003 World Health Report estimated that 17 million people die from heart disease globally each year, with 80% of these deaths occurring in developing countries such as Russia, China and India. This number is expected to rise to 20 million annually by 2015 if appropriate action is not taken.
But heart disease can be both prevented and managed if you know the risk factors and act against them, said Qian. These factors include a poor diet, lack of physical activity, smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, age, gender, family history, obesity, and stress. Of these, high blood pressure is seen as the most common contributor to heart disease.
Recent data from the US indicates that there are about 72 million people aged 20 and older who have high blood pressure. In China, about 160 million people aged 18 and older suffer from the same condition, up 31% since 1991.
A recent study of over one million patients suggested that even a small increase in blood pressure would translate into a 20% higher death rate from stroke and a 12% higher death rate from heart disease. For patients who exhibit additional risk factors, including obesity and diabetes, the impact of these small changes is even greater.
There are many things one can do to prevent heart disease. Keeping your heart healthy isn’t difficult, but it may require you to make some basic changes to your lifestyle.
The foundation for healthy living is a balanced diet. Qian advises patients to eat more heart-friendly foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, bread and wholegrain foods, legumes, and unsalted nuts. It is also important to limit consumption of junk food and processed foods that are high in saturated fat, sugar, and salt (sodium).
Regular aerobic exercise (3-5 times per week) is another crucial measure when it comes to maintaining a healthy heart. In addition to substantially reducing high blood pressure and the risk of heart disease, regular physical activity also helps to relieve stress, increase energy, control weight, and decrease the risk of stroke, colon cancer, and diabetes. Qian recommends recreational activities like dancing, swimming, bicycling or hiking – all of which promote cardiovascular fitness.
Maintaining a healthy weight, giving up smoking, and drinking alcohol in moderation (no more than an average of one drink a day for women and two for men) are also high on the list of priorities.
Regular check-ups with a doctor are necessary to monitor blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Dr Daniel Jones, President-elect of the American Heart Association, often encourages his patients to monitor their blood pressure with a simple analogy to vehicle maintenance: “Do you change the oil in the car regularly? Of course you do. You don’t wait until it’s performing poorly to change it. So why would you want to treat your body any differently?”