Heart Disease - Symptoms, Causes & Prevention
Cardiovascular disease, AKA heart disease, is often thought to be a single condition affecting the heart. However, the term cardiovascular disease encompasses any condition that affects the structure or the function of the heart, and can arise from a wide array of root causes (1).
Types of Cardiovascular Disease
The most common forms of cardiovascular disease generally fall into four main categories:
- Coronary artery and vascular disease
- Heart rhythm disorders or arrhythmias
- Structural heart disease
- Heart failure
In Canada alone, heart disease affects 1.3 million Canadians, and is the number one cause of death across the globe (1). The heartening news? Almost 80% of premature heart disease and stroke can be prevented through healthy behaviours and lifestyle changes (1). Simple adjustments like making healthier food choices, engaging in physical activity, living smoke free, limiting alcohol, and maintaining a healthy weight for your body, can have a profound and lasting impact on lowering your risk of heart disease.
Prevention & Risk
The key to prevention begins with knowing your individual risk. Arming yourself with the facts about heart disease is your greatest tool, and modifying the risk factors in which you can control, are of the highest importance to achieve your optimal, lifelong health.
Curious to know more about what you can do to lower your risk of heart disease? The Heart and Stroke Foundation has a free Risk Assessment Tool (1), taking into account your personal health history and lifestyle behaviours, helping you to identify your own risk, and highlighting areas where there is room for positive change.
Diet: Imiting highly processed & packaged foods which are often jam-packed with salt and refined sugar; focusing on including whole grains, ample amounts of veggies & fruits, incorporating fish (heart-healthy fats!) and plant-based sources of protein more often
Maintaining a healthy weight: For your body and making physical activity a part of your daily routine - widely accepted recommendations aim for a total of 150 minutes of moderate-high intensity aerobic activity/week
Managing stress: Identifying your personal stressors and learning positive coping behaviours to help combat how our body feels and handles periods of high stress - meditation, exercise, getting out in nature or simply spending time with your support network are all great ways to help contend with daily stressors!
Limiting alcohol consumption & living smoke free
Risk factors increasing our risk that are beyond our control (1)
- Sex - women have a higher risk than men, increasing after menopause
- Increasing age
- Pre-existing health conditions: hypertension, diabetes, high-cholesterol, pre-eclampsia, atrial-fibrillation, vascular cognitive impairment & sleep apnea
- Ethnicity: people of Indigenous, South Asian or African descent
- Genetic: Having a family member with heart disease
- Lacking access to healthy food, clean drinking water, proper health care or social services
How YOU can take charge of your heart health!
1. Aerobic exercise
All fitness is fabulous - whatever you’re doing to get your muscles moving and blood pumping is beneficial for both your body and mind! However, when it comes to heart disease specifically, aerobic styles of exercise are the most studied for their impact. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, has shown the link between increasing physical activity to reach recommended goals (150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity/week) to a significant decrease in risk for all CVD mortality by 23% and CVD incidence by 17%. This association was most notably seen in people increasing aerobic exercise to the recommended weekly guidelines, who started at very little activity! This shows that even if your cardiovascular fitness is not where you’d like it to be, it is within your power to change this, and enact enormous benefit to both your heart and your overall health.
When talking about heart health, the “Mediterranean Diet” is practically synonymous, as it is the most extensively studied style of eating when it comes to its impact on cardiovascular outcomes. This approach to eating focuses on a high intake of monounsaturated: saturated fats, with a heavy emphasis on olive oil and nuts, plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables & legumes), whole grains, an increased intake of fatty fish and minimal red-meat, dairy and cheese. The staple foods in this diet are rich with monounsaturated fats, fiber, polyphenols and omega-3 fatty acids. Better conformity with the Mediterranean Diet has been associated with better cardiovascular health outcomes - including clinically meaningful reductions in rates of coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, and total cardiovascular disease (3,4).
Even with our very best efforts, it’s incredibly tough to get enough of the omega-3 fatty acids our body needs to see therapeutic benefit (anti-inflammatory, cholesterol-lowering, heart-protecting) through diet alone! This is where the all-star omega-3 fatty acids come in! In the most recent Cochrane Review looking at fish oil and the risk of cardiovascular disease, increasing intake of omega-3 via supplementation was associated with reducing coronary heart disease and mortality, and shown to reduce serum triglycerides (a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease), by 15% in a dose-dependent manner (5).