Understanding heart disease: risk factors and prevention

: Yellow stethoscope with red paper heart.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexel

We all know that the heart is an important organ but why? The heart is like the engine of the body - working 24x7x365, pumping blood which has oxygen and nutrients to the whole body while carrying away carbon dioxide and waste to other organs so that they can be disposed of. Statistics of heart disease are alarming - about 27% of global deaths were due to heart attack and stroke. In Singapore it was 31%, which is almost 1 in 3 deaths.

Knowledge is power when it comes to your heart as well. You can improve your heart health by understanding risks of heart diseases and preventing them.

What are the main types of heart diseases?

In Singapore, the top 3 by incidence are:

  1. Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) where plaque build-up narrows the coronary arteries, reducing blood flow to the heart muscle.
  2. Heart Failure when the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body's needs, often due to damage from heart attacks or other underlying conditions.
  3. Hypertensive Heart Disease where the heart has to work harder to pump blood due to high blood pressure, leading to thickening and enlargement of the heart muscle.

Common symptoms of heart attack, cardiac arrest and stroke are shared here.

What are the risk factors of heart disease?

There are some risk factors which can’t be changed - age, gender and heredity or family history, but many more which you can.

  • Overweight or Obesity - Unhealthy diet and lack of exercise contribute to being overweight or obese. Even with no other risk factors, people with excess body fat are more likely to develop heart disease.
  • High cholesterol - the bad kind i.e. LDL (low-density lipoprotein) can clog up your arteries and cause blood vessels to narrow and harden. We discuss more on cholesterol here.
  • High blood pressure or hypertension forces your heart to work harder than usual, straining the heart muscles.
  • High blood sugar or diabetes significantly increases the risk of heart disease. When present with high cholesterol or high blood pressure, the risk of heart attack increases even more.
  • Smoking which increases blood pressure, makes blood clots more likely to form and causes buildup of plague in arteries.

How do I prevent heart disease?

It is never too late to start having heart healthy habits! Here are some tips:

1) Lose weight if you are overweight

Research shows many health benefits of a low carbohydrate diet, such as lower visceral fat i.e. around the stomach and liver, lower bad cholesterol, higher good cholesterol, balanced blood pressure and stable insulin and blood sugar levels. Developed by Dr. Lim Su Lin, Chief Dietitian at the National University Hospital, Singapore, the Healthy Ketogenic Diet is one such example.

2) Eat a healthy diet

  • Load up on vegetables and fruits.
  • Choose whole grains- brown rice, wholegrain pasta, wholegrain bread that are not heavily processed.
  • Go for lean meats like chicken without skin, fish instead of fatty or processed meat.
  • Use unsaturated fats such as monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils instead of animal fat for cooking.
  • Snack on nuts, unsweetened yogurt or a piece of fresh fruit instead of rich “kuih”, deep fried “pisang goreng”, pastries or cakes.
  • Choose peanut butter instead of jams or chocolate spread.
  • Choose water over fruit juice, soda or other sugary drinks.
  • Limit alcohol intake.

Strawberries and Blueberries on Glass Bowl

3) Develop an exercise routine

Consider using the FITT principle to create an effective exercise routine for yourself.

F = Frequency. Generally, you should aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week or 70 minutes of vigorous exercise.

I = Intensity. Generally, you should be sweating and breathing deeply but not struggling to speak.

T = Time. Target exercise of at least 20 minutes per session, with an additional 5 to 10 minutes for warming up and cooling down both before and after exercise.

T = Type. Target to do a mix of cardio and strength training exercises.

More on FITT here.

4) Monitor your numbers (that is, your regular body weight and blood pressure measurements, screening blood tests, etc) to catch any health issues early and manage them, so don’t skip your annual health checks and doctor’s appointments.

5) Manage your stress by addressing the causes of it i.e. stressors and make time for things you enjoy doing to unwind.

6) Get good sleep. Good sleep benefits your whole body, including your heart. An average of 7-9 hours every night is recommended for adults.

7) Stop smoking of course.

Remember - your heart is the engine of your body, deserving of your care and attention. Stay heart-healthy!

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