World Heart Day: Take heart for a healthy heart

On September 29, we will celebrate World Heart Day. It is a global event that is organised to create awareness on how to prevent heart disease, and promote research into various heart diseases – We all think we are aware, but are we? A reading of this article from the heart by Dr. Oliver D’Souza, will test our awareness and our lifestyle…

Check and control your blood pressure, stop eating fried foods, add more fibre to your diet, reduce your weight, curb your salt intake, and exercise daily...” This is the general advice given to any patient with heart disease.

The disease itself could be something as simple as high blood pressure or as serious as a heart attack or stroke. With high stress jobs being the norm of the day, the pressures of daily life and a deteriorating environment, even people in their 30’s are developing heart diseases.

Today anyone and everyone knows what causes heart problems and what should be done to prevent it. While it now seems common sense today, where did all this information come from? It’s time for a bit of history.

For more than two centuries it has been observed that people beyond a certain age, working in an office setting, or having a lot of stress, were more likely to have heart-related issues. Most of this knowledge was based on physicians’ personal experiences in dealing with the diseases related to the heart. Before World War II began, the rate of heart disease in both the American and European continents was similar. The hypothesis was that the stress of the travails and uncertainties of war and the likelihood of not making it out alive from the war would result in a spike in heart disease in Europe which bore the brunt of the II World War. 

Reality was different. It was found that there was a decline in deaths due to heart diseases. By contrast, in America, which was relatively undamaged by the horrors of war, the rates sky-rocketed. Science was at a loss to explain such a trend.

At the end of World War II in 1945, President Truman declared a war on heart disease. This lead to one of the most successful medical studies in recorded history - The Framingham Heart Study, named after the town where it was started in 1948, is still running today.

The original participants were examined every two years. Their children and their grandchildren were also enrolled and are constantly providing invaluable data on the causes of heart disease. It’s been a continuous source of information on heart conditions for the last 70 years! It is safe to say that a major portion of advice a doctor gives regarding the heart, has been obtained from or has been cross-checked with this one single study.

Challenges today

The challenges of today are different from those 70 years ago. There is an overload of information, each contradicting the other. On one day eating a specific food item is harmful, soon after another source tells us that it is beneficial!

Numerous studies conducted around the world examining each of the several aspects that are related to heart diseases are often incorrectly cited by the media fixated on a simple attention-grabbing headline. Social media apps often take studies out of context and now everyone is an expert. The biggest challenge a doctor faces today is just trying to keep up with the massive information being churned out daily. Its confusion in patients, confounded by experts of all hues with access to the tools of dissemination of information – the internet! In all this chaos, what does one do?

While medicine can do wonders the onus is on each of us to ensure that we lead a healthy life.

Our body is like a machine that is constantly working. No breaks or vacation are provided to it. Over a period there is the inevitable wear and tear. It is on each individual to limit the damage our bodies have to face. Take heart, is not said in jest – take care of it and it will take care of you.

Here’s some simple common-sense advice that has stood the test of time.

• First and most importantly, get the right amount of sleep. Too much or too little is bad. So, how much is the right amount? Depending on the age and type of work, our bodies on an average require 7 – 8 hours of sleep. If a person isn’t sleeping well, it results in certain chemicals being released by the body, which can result in damage to the muscles of the heart. It is also important to keep in mind that disturbed sleep can be a sign of heart disease.

• Second, eat well. Remember the difference in rates of death in Europe and America during World War II? The accepted theory is that in Europe, food was scarce. The population had to depend on simple diets like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. America, on the other hand, had enough and more food. The consumption of processed food remained similar to the pre-war years and so did the rates of deaths due to heart diseases. Consume a diet with fibre rich whole grains, vegetables and fruits, fish and poultry. Choosing foods low in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids and avoiding sodium, sugar and corn-based sweeteners. If in doubt, remember, processed food is only good for the company that manufactured it.

• Third, be physically active. We evolved as a species to be agile and always on the move. Sitting for prolonged durations has been shown to have a relation with heart disease. Exercise routines can be started with a simple brisk walk of half an hour per day or 75 minutes of jogging, running, swimming or physically demanding sports is a good start. The rule of thumb is to start small and gradually increase. Additionally, it is best to engage in muscle-strengthening activities for the arms, chest, shoulders, legs, hips, back and abdomen. If you find yourself stuck at a desk the whole day, make it point to walk for a few minutes every other hour.

• Fourth is, find some time to focus on yourself. Keep aside 15 – 20 minutes in the morning or at night as “Me Time”. Use this time to reflect and meditate. Organize your day mentally and try to stick to a schedule. Simple measures to help relieve some stress from the daily grind of life!

• Fifth, know the signs of a heart attack. Heart attack rarely kills the first time it occurs. It is generally brushed off as a relatively minor issue by people unaware of the gravity of the situation. It commonly presents in any of the following ways:

The typical scene portrayed in movies of clutching of the chest while falling helplessly to the ground is seen once the disease progresses beyond a critical point. Initially, a person will have uncomfortable pressure, squeezing or sensation of fullness at the centre of the chest. Generally, it lasts for a few minutes, goes away and comes back.

Most of the times it is dismissed as gastric acidity and ignored until it is too late. Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, neck or jaw. Shortness of breath; with or without chest discomfort. Again, these symptoms are attributed to different diseases and are ignored outright till it is too late.

• Finally, take proper care of your health. You alone are responsible for it. Heart disease isn’t the death sentence it used to be. It can be prevented and managed to ensure that one leads a meaningful life. If medications are prescribed, be sure to take them regularly without fail. If they don’t agree with you, revisit your doctor and see if the medicines can be changed or the dose altered.

The author is a doctor working at Fr. Muller Medical College, Mangaluru; He assists people in choosing medial options suited to their individual needs.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of and does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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