Don’t Go Breaking Your Heart

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Heart disease, or to give it the correct name, ischaemic heart disease is the most common cause of death in the UK, with 1 in 5 men and 1 in 6 women being affected, totalling approximately 100,000 deaths in the UK annually. And the same is true for most countries – more people die of a damaged heart than of any other condition.

There is good news though, in that these statistics are improving all the time because of improved treatments and the fact that people are getting the message that lifestyle matters. And it does matter – almost all premature deaths from heart disease, that is before the age of 75, are entirely preventable by living a healthy lifestyle. Sadly, 40000 people in the UK are still dying of heart disease before the age of 75 every year so please forgive me for preaching the ‘please live healthily’ message again!

Ischaemic heart disease is caused by fatty deposits in the arteries of the heart which eventually lead to blockages in the arteries. These blockages prevent blood flow to the heart muscle, and if the blood supply falls below a critical level then the heart is permanently damaged, commonly known as a heart attack.

Symptoms of early heart disease include tiredness, shortness of breath on exertion and chest pain (angina). If you experience any of those things on a regular basis then please consult your doctor, and if you experience chest pain and shortness of breath to any significant extent for the first time, or much worse than your usual symptoms , then please phone 999. Your GP will know what to do but is very unlikely to have all of the equipment and medication required to deal with your predicament, so the safest place you can be in this situation is in hospital.

It is sometimes possible to predict which people are more likely to have heart disease. If you have a strong family history of close relatives suffering with heart disease at a young age then that increases your own chance of the same problems. Certain medical conditions, particularly diabetes, increase an individual’s chances of heart disease, and lifestyle has a significant impact.

So if you are at risk of heart disease, or you have the early signs and symptoms of it, then you can greatly reduce your chances of it developing into a heart attack by changing your lifestyle. The changes are all the usual ones that doctors talk about for many conditions:

  • EXERCISE MORE – exercising for 30 minutes several days per week at a level that makes you slightly short of breath but still able to hold a conversation will significantly reduce your chances of a heart attack.
  • STOP SMOKING – smoking is a major cause of heart disease and it is almost never too late to quit. Your body will function in a much healthier way within 24 hours of quitting, and your risk of heart disease will reduce to something comparable with a non smoker within a few years.
  • MODERATE ALCOHOL INTAKE – Recent research suggests that part of the reason that the Mediterranean diet is so healthy is based on the vast quantities of vegetables they eat combined with a MODERATE quantity of wine. This would mean just a glass of wine with food most days, not the binge drinking we tend to do in the UK. For the record, the ‘safe’ limits set by the government are 14 units for women and 21 for men with 2 alcohol free days each week.
  • HEALTHY EATING – essentially this means a cholesterol lowering diet, which will be of benefit to you even if your cholesterol is normal. So avoiding foods that tend to increase cholesterol such as red meat and high fat dairy products is advisable, along with eating more foods that tend to lower cholesterol such as fruit, vegetables, beans and whole grains. Substituting meat for fish, particularly oily fish, and butter for vegetable oils, will also help. These days the emphasis is on ‘healthy fats’ rather than ‘low fat’, so modest amounts of olive oil and other healthy oils including oily fish are recommended. Other sources of healthy fats are nuts, seeds and avocados. Eggs in moderation are fine because even though they contain cholesterol it seems that they do not increase your blood cholesterol levels.
  • WEIGHT MANAGEMENT – keeping your weight at a normal level is associated with lower risks of heart disease, and if you are overweight then losing just 10% of your total body weight can make a major difference to your health.
  • MEDICAL ISSUES – it is worth checking in with your GP or practice nurse to have your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels checked every now and again. They will advise you if you need to have any treatment based on the results, and the things you can do to help yourself if any of them are too high are the ones listed above.

There are a very small number of people who are at significantly increased risk of heart disease, but for the fortunate overwhelming majority generally looking after yourself can make all the difference. So while the Bible advises us to guard our hearts above all else (Proverbs 4v23) in a spiritual sense, guarding it physically is equally important – and in many ways so much easier to do!

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