Myths and truths about cardiovascular disease
Gillian Flower, ND
Think you’ve got heart health all figured out? It might be more complicated than you think (sorry, red wine drinkers).
Small misconceptions can have big impacts on your cardiovascular system, putting you at risk of heart disease. Check your heart IQ by tackling these heart health myths ... Can you separate fact from fiction?
High blood pressure (hypertension) and high cholesterol (hypercholesterolemia) may not have any outward symptoms until you suffer a heart attack. You may not have any idea that your cholesterol or blood pressure are a concern until they are measured, leaving you at risk without even knowing it.
See your health care practitioner to have your blood pressure and cholesterol checked. Discuss your personal risk factors for cardiovascular disease to determine how often these tests should be done.
Recent studies suggest that a low-fat diet will not do your heart any favours, although avoiding trans fats is still advised. Be careful about using carbohydrate-rich foods such as refined grains and sugars to replace fat-containing ones—a high-carb and low-fat diet could be your heart’s worst enemy.
Continue to eat fat as part of a varied diet that also emphasizes protein, vegetables, and whole grains. Avoid hydrogenated margarines, commercially prepared baked goods, and fried foods, as they are common sources of heart-harming trans fats.
Fish oil and its key constituents, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), may reduce the risk of having a heart attack or angina and, more significantly, of dying from heart disease. This may be especially true in people at higher risk of cardiac events. While this is great news, taking fish oil or any other supplement is not a guarantee of good health. Make sure you are taking stock of all your risk factors and addressing them where possible.
Take a daily fish oil supplement if you are concerned with your risk of heart disease, while keeping an eye on your weight, your diet, your exercise practices, and your alcohol intake. Remember, always check with your health care practitioner first to find out if a supplement is right for you.
Stress really does have an impact on our heart health. The Women’s Health Initiative found more instances of coronary heart disease among women reporting higher levels of stress in their lives. Give your heart a boost with stress reduction techniques such as meditation and yoga. Resistance exercise using free weights, machines, or even the weight of your own body may also increase your resilience to stressful situations.
One of the most widespread heart health myths, this is simply not true. Heart disease is the second most common cause of death for both women and men in Canada. Consider this sobering statistic: for every one woman to die of breast cancer each year, more than five will die of heart disease.
Remember that everyone is affected by cardiovascular disease. Adopt a heart-helping lifestyle, regardless of your gender.
While classic symptoms of heart attack include chest pain, discomfort, or pressure, not everyone experiences the intensity of symptoms that we see in the movies. Women’s symptoms in particular may not fit this picture and, notably, may not include chest pain at all. A recent study revealed an alarming fact: patients without chest pain may not receive life-saving treatments in a timely fashion.
Get to know all the signs of a heart attack (see sidebar) and know that a lack of chest pain doesn’t rule out a heart attack, especially in women. Call 911 immediately if you suspect a heart attack, and insist on having your heart checked if you think there is a problem.
Not all of these signs need to be present during a cardiac episode; however, common signs include
Remember that heart attack signs are not always severe and sudden, especially in women.
Studies of the Mediterranean diet boast strong evidence that this plan may drop your risk of developing cardiovascular disease and, most importantly, cut your risk of dying of a heart attack. Diet may be one of the most powerful heart-protecting tools out there!
Steer your diet toward more plant-based foods such as fresh veggies and fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Use extra-virgin olive oil liberally while limiting your salt and red meat consumption. Eat fish regularly, and share your meals with friends and family. Plan to enjoy good food and good health!
Sedentary behaviour puts your heart at risk whether or not you are active outside of work. While exercising for heart health may seem like a no-brainer, the impact of not moving for long stretches is just coming to light.
Protect your heart from a sedentary lifestyle by getting up and walking around every 30 minutes. Can you stand instead of sitting? Could you have a walking meeting instead of booking the boardroom? Small shifts toward movement can have big effects on your cardiac health.
Alcohol is not a nutritional supplement. While some studies have suggested that moderate alcohol use is associated with better cardiovascular health, it can be a slippery slope. Alcohol can also increase your blood pressure and your waistline, while putting you at higher risk of other serious illnesses such as cancer and liver disease. You may be better off with a handful of antioxidant-rich grapes instead.
Limit your consumption to no more than one drink per day for women and two per day for men, but less if possible. A bottle a day won’t keep the doctor away. If you do use alcohol, be aware of the risks to your overall health.