Keeping your Heart Healthy

July 5, 2011

By Jessica Siebert

heart-diseaseHere’s the bad news: Heart disease is the number one cause of death in Canada. In fact, every seven minutes someone in Canada suffers a heart attack. Many men and women are uniformed when it comes to heart disease.

Here’s the Good News: Being informed about the risk factors, symptoms and preventative measures can help you avoid becoming part of this statistic.

What is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to part of the heart muscle is dramatically reduced or stopped completely. This reduction, or cessation of blood supply happens when one or more of the coronary arteries, which supply blood to heart muscle, are blocked.

This blockage occurs from a build up of plaque (fat-like deposits) called atherosclerosis. A heart attack can also occur when a coronary artery temporarily contracts or goes into a spasm. This causes the artery to narrow, and blood flow to the heart to decrease or stop. A spasm can occur in normal appearing blood vessels without a build up of plaque.

If the blood supply to the heart muscle is cut off for more then a few minutes, muscle cells can become severely damaged and die causing permanent heart damage or death.

Heart Disease Statistics

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men in North America. In 2007, 309,821 men died from heart disease in the United States alone. Heart disease is often referred to as a ‘man’s’ disease; however this is not entirely true because around the same number of women as men die each year from heart disease. Heart disease is also the leading cause of death in women.

In 2007, heart disease killed 306,246 women in the United States, which is six times more deaths then breast cancer. In fact, 42% of women who have heart attacks die within one year, compared to 24% of men. Women are also twice as likely as men to die within the first few weeks after suffering a heart attack.

Preventing a Heart Attack

Knowing Your Risk Factors for a Heart Attack

Prevention is the key to avoid being a statistic. There are many risk factors that increase your chance of heart disease, and knowing these risk factors are important in preventing heart disease. Some of the general risk factors include:

  • abnormal cholesterol,
  • blood pressure higher then 135/85,
  • family history of early heart disease,
  • overweight,
  • smoking,
  • diabetes (raises your risk four to six times)
  • sedentary lifestyle

Women have an extra risk factor for those who suffer early onset menopause. It’s important to make an appointment with your doctor to be checked for the risk factors, and to get the information you need to lower your individual risk. If you have several risk factors, your doctor may recommend a stress test to get a better idea of the state of your heart.

Reducing Your Risk Factors Through Diet & Exercise

While you have no control over some of your risk factors you can control some of your risk factors through your diet and exercise. Read the article, Healthy Foods that Can Help Prevent Heart Disease for some recommended foods and supplements.

Exercise is very important in keeping a heart healthy. Studies have shown that as little as seven hours of physical activity a week, can lower your risk of dying early by 40%, as compared with someone whose weekly activity is less then 30 minutes per week.

Increased physical activity has great cardiovascular benefits, the first being improved circulation. Improved circulation can help improve artery health and encourage new capillary growth in muscles being exercised.

A second benefit of exercise is improved heart function. Regular physical activity will slow your heart rate down, and increase the amount of blood pumped with each beat. Exercise will also lower your blood pressure, which is a great benefit because as mentioned before high blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease.

If there is concern about your cholesterol numbers, exercise can also help that! Exercise causes triglycerides (fatty particles in blood) to lessen, and can increase your good cholesterol, which in turn will help reduce bad cholesterol. Improved blood fat levels will also reduce atherosclerosis, which causes heart disease.  Regular physical activity will also help your cells access oxygen from the blood, lessening the workload of your heart. And lastly, exercise can help improve or manage blood sugar and insulin levels. Diabetes is a huge risk factor in heart disease, and exercise lowers your risk of developing this.

Signs of heart attacks

Most people who have suffered a heart attack will tell you that they felt some symptoms in the days leading up to the attack. The most common symptom is chest pain (angina). Chest pain is most likely to get worse and more frequent, as the heart attack approaches.

Twenty percent of heart attack sufferers did not experience any chest pain leading up to, or during their heart attack.  You may also feel pain in your jaw, back, shoulder, or arm (especially left arm), or have shortness of breath, anxiety, sweating, confusion, nausea and vomiting, chances in vision, and light-headedness. Many people confuse heartburn symptoms with heart attack symptoms; however, it is best to contact your doctor if the discomfort is worse, or different then usual.

Recovering After a Heart Attack

The first few days following a heart attack you will be in the hospital resting. Any activity that follows will have to begin slowly. As your heart heals, you will begin to start moving around again.

Some hospitals offer cardiac rehabilitation following a heart attack, to help you recover. These programs usually involve exercise, managing or getting rid of risk factors, and dealing with any stress or emotional issues you may be struggling with. Depending on the severity of the heart attack you suffered, your doctor will help you develop a recovery plan that will involve when you can return to work, medications you will be on, an exercise plan, and possible restrictions to your life.


You most likely know of someone who has suffered a heart attack or passed away due to one. Taking charge of your health, and being aware can help prevent people from falling victim to this disease. Visit your doctor to find out if you suffer any of the risk factors associated with heart disease, and then take control of your health by practicing preventative measures.

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