How to a Fix Broken Heart: The Heart Health Special

(Image credit: Unknown)

Diseases of the heart and circulatory system (CVD, or cardiovascular disease) were the second most common cause of death in the UK in 2014 with about 155,000 deaths, or 27% of deaths overall – only just behind the infinitely more sinister cancer with 29% of deaths.

Coronary heart disease alone is the single biggest cause of premature death in UK men, causing 15% of premature male deaths. “Heart and circulatory disease still kills around one in four people in the UK, stealing them away from their families and loved ones,” says the British Heart Foundation.

And that’s before you start counting the financial cost – in England alone the NHS spent £4.3bn treating CVD in 2013-14. The good news, however, is that 80% of all heart disease is caused by modifiable lifestyle factors including diet, physical activity and smoking, and it’s not too late to undo damage caused by poor habits. We got the low down from a nutritionist and a coach about healthy heart foods.

Read on to find out how you can help your heart in its pulsatory responsibilities and thus improve and extend your own stay on earth. But first, five things you (probably) never knew about your love pump.

Hearty Facts

1. Your heart isn’t on the left-hand side of your chest

It’s actually centrally located under the breastbone. The heart itself is asymmetrical and the left ventricle has muscular walls that are much thicker and larger than the right because it is responsible for pumping blood all the way around the body.

2. Your heart is the size of two fists

It’s often said that your heart is the size of your fist, but this is only true for children – once you grow to adulthood it’s actually the size of both of them.

3. Your heart beats with the force of you squeezing a tennis ball

Squash a tennis ball in your hand and you’re using about the same amount of force that your heart uses to pump blood around your body.

4. Your heart will pump three supertankers of blood before you die

If you live an average lifetime then your heart will pump a million barrels worth of blood around your body. Your 5.6 litres of blood circulates through your body three times in every minute and travels 12,000 miles in a day.

5. You can die from a broken heart

Stress cardiomyopathy is where heart muscles are temporarily weakened by a shock or stressful event.

10 Risks and What to Do About Them

Ten factors that can contribute to poor heart health, and the best ways keep your ticker in good health.

1. High Blood Pressure

Your blood pressure is the pressure at which blood is squirted around your body, and hypertension, or high blood pressure, means too much stress is being placed on the plumbing. Blood pressure readings feature two numbers. The upper (systolic) number shows the highest pressure caused by the heart beating, while the lower (diastolic) number is the lowest pressure, when your heart is resting between beats. A reading of more than 120/80 indicates you need to take steps to bring it down.

According to the British Heart Foundation an unhealthy diet accounts for half of all hypertension (including eating too much salt), while being inactive or obese account for about 20% each. So lifestyle changes are vital to get the pressure down.

Drugs can also do the job and a two-decade long study published in December 2014 showed that treatment should be applied earlier. “Treating blood pressure to a lower level than currently recommended could greatly reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and potentially save millions of lives,” said study lead author Kazem Rahimi of the University of Oxford. So get your blood pressure checked, pronto, either at your local chemist or the doctor’s, or buy a gadget and do it at home.

2. Your Age

There’s not much you can do about this one – lying doesn’t work – but being aware of the risks means you can get checked out by your GP and take steps to get a healthier heart. After about 45 years, the risk of cardiovascular disease rises with one out of 100 men developing signs of heart disease. By 55, the risk has doubled to 2.1% out of 100, and by the age of 85, 7.4% of men have developed cardiovascular disease.

3. “Bad” Cholesterol

High LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood contribute to coronary heart disease, while high HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels actually protect the heart (and low levels of it increase disease risk). But don’t go thinking cutting eggs from your diet alone will help – over 80% of cholesterol in the body is manufactured and managed there. Instead you need to focus on reducing saturated and trans fats (the usual delicious suspects – snacks, biscuits, fast foods, etc), while increasing your fibre intake.

RECOMMENDED: Beat Heart Disease by Improving Your Cholesterol

4. Genetic Profile

You can’t change the genes you were dealt, but knowing the increased risk if your family has a history of the disease helps take early preventative measures. If your father or brother suffered a heart attack before the age of 55, or if your sister or mother before 65, then you are at greater risk of developing heart disease. And if both parents suffered heart disease before 55, then you have a 50% higher chance of developing CHD than the general population. The genes responsible are linked to high blood pressure and abnormal blood lipids (fancy medical jargon for fat). So focus on combating these two threats if your family is on first name terms with the staff of the cardio ward.

5. Physical Inactivity

A chronic lack of exercise is catastrophic for heart health. Modern life, from transport, to work, to entertainment is geared around sitting on your arse, and it can kill you by raising blood pressure, elevating triglycerides (more fat) and lowering “good” cholesterol. The British Heart Foundation recommends that adults should aim to be active every day: “At least 2.5 hours of moderate intensity activity (a week) in bouts of 10 minutes or more”, they reckon. “One way to approach this is to do 30 minutes on at least five days a week.” You can also condense this into 75 minutes of “vigorous intensity” exercise spread throughout the week. But don’t think hammering the cardio is enough. “Adults should also undertake physical activity to improve muscle strength on at least two days per week,” says the BHF.

RECOMMENDED: Joe Wicks’ 15-minute HIIT workout

6. Being Overweight

Got a beer gut? Then here’s the bad news: “Fat concentrated in the abdomen is a predisposing factor for cardiovascular disease,” says the ever-cheerful British Heart Foundation. In addition, the World Health Organisation’s waistline cut-off point – above which you are at risk – is 37 inches. And if you have a body mass index of over 30? The same. Get active, and take some fish oil supplements while you’re at it – a University of South Australia study found that overweight people who took fish oils while following an exercise programme lowered their blood fats and increased “good” cholesterol levels.

RECOMMENDED: How to Lose Belly Fat with Simple Lifestyle Changes

7. Smoking

Still on the fags? Seriously? Despite everyone knowing that smoking virtually guarantees an earlier appointment with death, 78,200 people were still felled by smoking in 2013. Smoking has absolutely nothing good to offer your heart.

8. Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is directly linked to an unhealthy, high-sugar diet and it in turn raises your risk of heart disease. Having either type of diabetes means you’re at three times the risk of having a heart attack. And the effect of diabetes on CHD death rates is getting worse, not better. New research, published in September 2014 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology says sugary drinks are partly to blame and that drinking one or two servings of sugar-sweetened drinks per day raises your risk of heart attack or fatal heart disease by 35%. Glucose can cause insulin spikes, which can lead to type 2 diabetes while fructose (in fruit juice) can trigger the release of triglycerides and “bad” LDL cholesterol into the bloodstream from the liver.

9. Poor Diet

Eating badly contributes to the furring up of your arteries – the classic preparation for a massive heart attack. Lots of vegetables and fruit, on the other hand, actively improve the health of your heart. If you eat them.

In September 2014, three leading heart docs claimed that lifestyle and diet changes, such as adopting a Mediterranean diet, can be even more effective than drugs, and that 80% of heart disease is caused by “modifiable lifestyle factors”, including diet. “A healthy diet offers a far more powerful, sustainable and enjoyable plan than lifelong statin tablets,” says Professor Simon Capewell, vice-president of the UK Faculty of Public Health.

10. Stress

Being in a constantly adrenalised state isn’t good for your heart. “When we were cavemen, that adrenaline helped us be ready if a tiger was going to attack,” says Dr Richard Stein, professor at New York University’s Center For The Prevention Of Heart Disease. “Today, all the tigers are in our heads.” One way to combat daily stress is to use meditation. In a 2012 study in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, subjects who used transcendental meditation were 48% less likely to have a heart attack. “Think of it as a 20-30 minute vacation from the stress in your life,” says Dr Stein. But you don’t have to go all new age – even taking uninterrupted time out to walk while listening to your favourite music counts as a de-stress.