It's Heart Month, and no, we don't mean Valentine's day. February 14th may indeed bring with it flowers, cards and gifts for your loved ones, but this month is also an opportunity to reflect on the way you treat your heart, and to educate yourself on the ways you can improve your lifestyle to care for the amazing and precious organ that keeps us alive. American Heart Month are suggesting you wear red on Feburary 5th, whilst the British Heart Foundation are focussing on the small changes you can make to improve heart health and prevent heart disease.
What is Heart Disease?
There are many terms thrown around when discussing heart disease and heart conditions, so what do they all mean? Heart disease is sometimes used as another term for Cardiovascular Disease (CVD). This is the most prevalent of heart problems, causing 1 in every 7 deaths each year in the USA. There are several conditions that are all considered part of CVD, and most of them can be avoided or delayed by good lifestyle choices. However, heart disease is also used as an umbrella term for all problems people can develop with their heart. This includes hereditary and unavoidable issues like faulty valves, irregular heartbeats and a weak heart muscle. For heart month this year, however, both the UK and USA are focussing on the more common CVD conditions that are highly affected by your lifestyle and diet. CVD is essentially a restriction of the blood flow to and from the heart and around the body. This can be caused by a blood clot, but is usually caused by a build up of fatty deposits in your arteries and around the heart, causing the space for blood to flow through to become thinner, which in turn causes excess strain on the heart. If blocked off completely, you may experience a heart attack, where the heart stops pumping blood around the body. Blockages and build up of fat can happen in different places in the body, causing differerent CVD conditions:
- Coronary heart disease - the coronary arteries are the two main arteries supplying blood to and from the heart. If they become blocked, the heart struggles to function normally. Coronary heart disease is the most common form of heart disease worldwide, and is the leading cause of death for men and women, although it is more prevalent in men in general.
- Peripheral artertial disease - this condition involves a blockage or restriction of the arteries to the limbs, and can be recognised by pain when walking, which often worsend when you use your legs more, like when you climb the stairs
- Stroke - if an artery or blood vessel in the brain becomes blocked by fatty deposits or a blood clot, this stops oxygen and blood getting to the brain, resulting in a stroke. If you suspect someone of a stroke, it's important to get help as soon as possible as every minute changes the outcomes dramatically. Read up on the stroke symptoms to look out for and what to do, using the acronym FAST. Face, Arms, Speech, Time
5 Small changes you can make to prevent heart disease and heart complications
- Change your diet - A diet high in cholesterol, fat and sugar can all have a negative effect on your heart, as they clog your arteries, raise blood pressure and cause obesity which in turn puts more strain on your already struggling heart. A poor diet can also lead to type 2 diabetes, which dramatically raises your risk of heart problems, due to the excess sugar in your body as your pancreas struggles or fails completely to produce insulin and absorb the sugar in your diet
- Stop smoking - if you smoke, this can put immense pressure on your heart. Smoking raises blood pressure, increases blood clotting, causes fatty build up on the linings of your arteries, lowers your tolerance to exercise and even weakens the heart muscle overall. If you can cut down or quite smoking, it will have a huge impact on your health and lower the risks of heart disease significantly
- Exercise - it's recommended that we do 30 minutes exercise 5 days a week. However, try not to get hung up on the amount, especially if you've come from a place of doing no exercise at all. Try to do a little bit every day, and start building it up. Don't push yourself too far, but anything that gets your heart pumping a little faster is great
- 10 minute challenge - the British Heart Foundation are challenging everyone to take 10 minutes every day to either do some exercise, learn a new active skill or read up on the easy changes you could make in your life to protect your heart
- Cut down on alcohol - the recommended amount is 2-3 units per day for women, 3-4 for men. If you are exceeding this, you could be putting excess strain on your heart as drinking increases your blood pressure.
If you suspect any issues with your heart, or think you may be unwell, put your symptoms into the Isabel symptom checker: