The information provided on the show is for general information purposes only. If you have a health problem, medical emergency, or a general health question, you should contact a physician or other qualified health care provider for consultation, diagnosis and/or treatment. Under no circumstances should you attempt self-diagnosis or treatment based on anything you have seen on the show
It’s no secret that your heart is one of the most important organs in your body, and keeping it in tip top shape is more important than ever. Heart disease is the second leading cause of death in Canada – a sobering statistic that should be all the evidence you need to take the time to make sure your heart is at its healthiest! Here to help with a run-down of all you need to know about this issue and some valuable tips on prevention is Dr. Yoni Freedhoff.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease is a term given for any condition that affects either how the heart’s built or how the heart works. Some of the most common types of heart disease would include:
Arterial disease: due to hardening of the arteries – this is the most common type of heart disease and is what leads to both angina and heart attacks.
Arrhthymias: where the rhythm of the heart’s beating is abnormal. This would include heart rhythms that are disorganized like atrial fibrillation, rhythms that are too fast like ventricular tachycardia, and rhythms that include extra beats. Sometimes these abnormal rhythms negatively affect blood flow and can even be fatal, and some don’t have any symptoms whatsoever.
Valvular or structural heart disease: Where the heart’s valves, walls or blood vessels have structural abnormalities.
Heart failure: This is when the heart isn’t able to pump efficiently and it develops after heart damage (usually post heart attack or after many years of high blood pressure).
Genetics and heritability can increase a person’s risk for heart disease, as well as diseases that themselves contribute to heart disease risk like high blood pressure/cholesterol/sugar as well as sleep apnea. Heart disease is also strongly influenced by lifestyle with risks coming from diet, lack of physical activity, obesity, smoking, alcohol, stress, and drug use.
For women, the most common heart attack sign is chest pain and discomfort or pressure. Women however are more likely than men to have a less typical presentation where chest pressure is absent. Women (and some men too) may experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or abdomen, dizziness or loss of consciousness, sudden extreme fatigue.
The more typical presentation (which is generally what men experience) also tends to include chest pressure, sweating, nausea, and/or shortness of breath.
What should I do if I experience these symptoms?
Call 911, stop all activity and sit or lie down. Chew and swallow either one 325mg or 2 81mg tablets of acetylsalicylic acid (usually referred to as ASA or aspirin), and wait for help to arrive.
How do I avoid getting dismissed by my doctor?
This is an important question without a perfect answer. It would depend, of course, on the physician, but I think that if a physician discounts your concerns regarding chest pain, it would be reasonable to both let the physician know that you’re concerned and that you would appreciate either him or her reviewing the tests that they’ve done with you that leads them not to worry, or to explain to you what tests could be done to rule out a heart problem. Once they’ve explained what tests could be done, I think you could then ask them, if they haven’t already offered to book them, to explain why it is they think that those tests are not necessary.
The link between stroke and cardiovascular health
Most of the risk factors for heart disease are also risk factors for strokes, and certainly having had a stroke increases the risk of having hardening of the arteries and vice versa. Heart failure also increases stroke risk. Having risk factors that affect the blood vessels in the heart means the brain’s blood vessels are also at risk and strokes, whether they’re hemorrhagic meaning due to a bleed, or ischemic meaning due to a blockage.
Risk factors specifically for women
There are many. From conditions like high blood pressure, cholesterol or sugar, sleep apnea, and obesity, to lifestyle related risks coming from diet, smoking, physical inactivity, stress, excessive alcohol – even things you can’t change like age and genetics.
Women have a few additional risk factors, including use of birth control pills. But it’s important here to note that if you’re under the age of 35 and don’t smoke, there’s no increased risk, but for women who smoke, or who are over the age of 40, and especially if they also have high blood pressure, oral contraceptives increase the risk of blood clots which in turn can cause heart attacks and strokes. Pregnancy also may increase risk by way of pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure related to pregnancy) or gestational diabetes. Risk also increases after menopause.
Does exercise make a difference?
Exercise makes a difference to everything and certainly to stroke prevention too. Exercise can help people improve their blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels while simultaneously improving sleep and mood and decreasing stress. Truly is the world’s best drug.
And as to what type of exercise is best, it’s the exercise you enjoy enough to continue doing. And don’t bite off more than you can chew. Better you do a small amount of exercise consistently and forever, than to do a large amount of exercise temporarily until you quit.
Heart disease is preventable. And if you’ve been diagnosed with a heart condition, there are ways you can reduce your risk of developing more heart problems. Consider these heart-healthy steps:
- Be smoke-free.
- Be physically active.
- Know and control your blood pressure.
- Eat a healthy diet that is lower in fat, especially saturated and trans fat.
- Achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
- Manage your diabetes.
- Limit alcohol use.
- Reduce stress.
- Visit your doctor regularly and follow their advice.