We base much of our advice here on the American Heart Association’s website content. You’ll notice that almost all the information in this section, whatever the heart conditions, has some things in common. They’re mostly about lifestyle.
You may not want to change your lifestyle. It might not seem like an attractive or pleasant thing to do. You could be surprised. Those of us who have had to make drastic changes or suffer the consequences have in many cases had more fun as a result than we could ever have imagined.
Yes, we do use the word fun in talking about heart conditions and other serious problems. Much of what we’re dealing with is not fun by any stretch of the imagination. Life and death are not, let us face it, usually a laugh a minute. The lifestyle changes you’ll need to make, however, can be challenging in the exciting sense and add unexpected enjoyment to your life.
Lifestyle changes you’ll probably need to make include: Exercise – and let’s be clear that we mean the right forms of exercise for your specific condition. Your doctor or physiotherapist can advise. If you haven’t been exercising, are overweight, have a high risk of coronary heart disease or have some other chronic health problem, see your doctor for a medical evaluation before beginning a physical activity program.
The American Heart Association advises that swimming, cycling, jogging, skiing, light aerobic workouts, dancing, walking (we highly recommend) or any of dozens of other activities can help your heart. These are appropriate when they cause you to feel warm, perspire and breathe heavily without being out of breath and without feeling any burning sensation in your muscles. We would add Tai Chi, Pilates Technique, Yoga, golf, or any of the other exercises available in our Health Information we Trust list and our Complementary Techniques And Therapies Guide.
Choose something that is fun, something you enjoy and mostly look forward to, not a health-promoting chore. Try to make it a habit, but be flexible. If you miss an exercise opportunity, work activity into your day in another way.
Don’t overdo it. Do low to moderate-level activities, especially at first. Gradually increase the duration and intensity of your activities as you become more fit. Over time, work up to exercising on most days of the week for 30-60 minutes.
Stop Smoking – The American Heart Association’s Scientific Position advises that smoking is the single most important preventable cause of premature death. Atherosclerosis (build up of fatty substances in the arteries) is a chief contributor to the high number of deaths from smoking. Many studies detail the evidence that smoking is a major cause of coronary heart disease, which leads to heart attack. Those of us who were smokers and didn’t want to hear this… until we got really ill… hope that you and yours will give up faster than we did.
Smoking, high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, obesity and diabetes are the six major independent risk factors for coronary heart disease that you can modify or control. Smoking increases the risk of coronary heart disease by itself. When it acts with other factors, it greatly increases risk. Smoking increases blood pressure, decreases exercise tolerance and increases the tendency for blood to clot. Smoking also increases the risk of recurrent coronary heart disease after bypass surgery. Smoking decreases HDL (good) cholesterol. Smoking combined with a family history of heart disease seems to greatly increase risk. Smoking also creates a higher risk for peripheral arterial disease and aortic aneurysm.
Diet and Controlling Your Weight – A weight-loss diet can be a necessary kick-start, but for long term weight control a combination of exercise and a pleasantly healthy diet will deliver far more positive results for your heart and general health,
The British Heart Foundation is our source for much of the following. They say that a healthy diet and keeping physically active can both reduce the risk of developing heart disease and increase chances of survival after a heart attack. What you eat and drink can protect you in many ways, including:
- reducing the strain on your heart from unhealthy body weight
- lowering your blood cholesterol level
- keeping your blood pressure down
- preventing atheroma (fatty buildup) inside your arteries
- preventing blood clots forming
The BHF advises that a healthy diet contains plenty of fruit and vegetables and starchy foods such as wholegrain bread, pasta and rice; and is low in fat (especially saturated fat), salt and sugar.
There is good evidence that eating a diet that is rich in a range of vegetables and fruits lowers the risk of heart disease. As most of us know but not enough of us do, the idea is to eat at least 5 portions each day. They can be fresh, frozen, dried or tinned.
Reducing the total amount of fat you eat can help to reduce your blood cholesterol level. Too much saturated fat from fatty meats, biscuits, cakes and full fat dairy products can clog up your arteries and put a strain on your heart.
Eating oily fish regularly can help to reduce the risk of heart disease and improve the chances of survival after a heart attack. The omega 3 fatty acids found in oily fish may keep the heartbeat regular, reduce triglyceride levels (these are fatty substances found in the blood), and prevent blood clots from forming in the coronary arteries.
Reducing the amount of salt you eat can be an important factor in keeping your blood pressure down. Some margarines claim to help lower cholesterol, and surprisingly enough this seems to be true to some degree.
Too much alcohol can damage the heart muscle, increase blood pressure and also lead to weight gain. The good news, however, is that moderate drinking (the BHF suggests between 1 and 2 units of alcohol a day) can help protect the heart in men aged over 40 and women who have gone through the menopause. Check The British Heart Foundation’s website and publications for more on healthy eating.
Sex and Heart Disease – Sex? Good. As the BHF says, you can continue to enjoy a happy and healthy sex life. You may have very legitimate concerns about possible limitations or problems if you have coronary heart disease, heart surgery or some other heart event. The British Heart Foundation can help deal with your concerns. Go to their websites to get the knowledge and security you need. Also note that they strongly recommend checking with your doctor before using Viagra or Cialis.
High Blood Pressure (hypertension) requires the very same lifestyle changes as for heart conditions above. These changes will help to reduce your risk of developing the condition in the first place or to treat hypertension.
If your blood pressure requires medical treatment, you will probably have to take medicine on a regular basis. If so, never stop taking it without consulting your GP, even if you feel fine. Hypertension can lead to serious complications if left untreated. Without treatment, life expectancy may well be reduced due to the risk of developing complications such as heart failure or stroke. By treating hypertension well, complications can be avoided and average life expectancy will remain almost normal.
Watch Out For High Cholesterol
Cholesterol is an important and necessary substance. It’s the starting point of manufacture for many of the body’s natural steroid hormones and for vitamin D, which controls calcium in the body. It is also an essential component of the membrane that forms the walls of individual cells in all tissues.
Eighty per cent of the cholesterol we have is produced within our own body – mostly by the liver. It’s then transported from the liver via the blood stream to other tissues.
Cholesterol travels through the blood in minute packages mixed with large molecules called lipoproteins. Lipoproteins are themselves combinations of fats and proteins.
High density lipoproteins (HDL) mop up excess cholesterol in the body and return it to the liver for re-processing. HDL is often called good cholesterol and raised amounts give protection against heart disease. Exercise raises HDL levels, as does modest alcohol intake.
Low density lipoproteins (LDL) transport cholesterol from the liver to be deposited elsewhere in the body. LDL is known as bad cholesterol because it deposits cholesterol in the lining of your arteries. The more LDL you have, the more likely you are to develop heart disease.
Cholesterol levels don’t tend to fluctuate, so if you have a normal level it doesn’t need to be measured again for many years. If it is high, it may need quite frequent re-testing to gauge the effect of treatment.
Measurements are done of your:
- Total cholesterol, which is all the subtypes combined. If this is high and you smoke, are overweight or have high blood pressure you will reduce your cardiovascular risk quite a lot by getting your cholesterol down
- HDL (good) cholesterol. If your HDL is high your risk is lowered
- LDL (bad) cholesterol. If this is high, and most especially if you have diabetes, it needs dealing with. A healthy diet can help, but most people will also need cholesterol-lowering drug treatment