Did you know that by 2005, the total number of cardiovascular disease (CVD) deaths (mainly coronary heart disease, stroke, and rheumatic heart disease) had increased globally to 17.5 million from 14.4 million in 1990, and that the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated there would be about 20 million CVD deaths in 2015, accounting for 30 percent of all deaths worldwide (WHO, 2005)?
Death from heart disease is common, and the key for prevention is not getting it to begin with ― or at least reducing your risk factors when you can.
There are some risk factors that you can do nothing about, like getting older, having a first degree relative with heart disease or a stroke (before the age of 55 for a male relative or 65 for a female relative), being a man or a postmenopausal woman (vs. a premenopausal woman), and being of African or Asian descent. Having an autoimmune disease like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis may also put you at increased risk, but since lifestyle changes can offset the activity of inflammation, even this risk factor may be modified.
The same goes for the risk factor of being overweight or obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure—changing lifestyle habits that lead to weight loss, lower blood pressure or better sugar control, can take care of these risks.
Having said that, losing weight when you are obese, getting your blood pressure down, or blood sugar under control can be a daunting task as many of us know, diets rarely work and putting fear into your head is never a good motivation.
Instead, it may be better to focus on just these six risk factors that can be positively influenced by the choices you make about you, your life and your health. The great news that even if you make small improvements, you can still greatly improve your heart health.
1. Risk: Lack of physical activity
Answer: Get up and move.
Exercise helps keep your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol down, while helping your mood stay up. If you do have heart disease, check with your doctor to see what sort of exercise restrictions you may have. In general, you want to always choose an activity that you enjoy, that you are most likely to actually do, and you are more likely to do with a friend. Your goal is to accomplish about 150 minutes of moderate exercise (meaning you can have a conversation during) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (conversation not possible) per week. That’s 15 minutes a day or 25 minutes three times a week respectively. Moderate exercise can include brisk walking, jogging at a slow pace, swimming, cycling or interval training.
2. Risk: Smoking or chewing tobacco
Answer: Quit smoking (DUH!)
Smoking is a hard habit to break but working with a therapist and your doctor who can prescribe a medication that may help with your cravings might help. You may also find doing deep breathing exercises and other de-stressing techniques help relieve the anxiety that often triggers you to smoke. Do ask yourself though if you love yourself enough to live life fully and completely without numbing your feelings. Addictions are really habits that started as a way to cope. Perhaps when you instill new and healthy coping tools you won’t need to smoke. You may want to do the witness/examine exercise around why you smoke, what need it fulfills, and how it makes you feel. You can then use this book to help you find new outlets of relief that enable you feel calm and relaxed maybe even more so than nicotine.
3. Risk: Drinking more than two alcoholic drinks a day may damage the heart muscle.
Answer: Cut down on the alcohol.
One drink a day may be protective if it is red wine due to the antioxidants. If you are drinking alcohol as a way to self-medicate for anxiety or stress, choose to work through your anxiety with a therapist or support group instead. There are many stress management and cognitive restructuring techniques that are more helpful. If you do need medication for depression or anxiety (which in themselves may increase your risk of heart disease), check with your doctor if you may require medication or supplements.
4. Risk: Uncontrolled stress and anger
Answer: Learn stress management techniques and meditation.
Stress and anger may be another risk factor as the stress response is more elevated causing more inflammation and adrenaline to be released. Practices such as mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other forms of meditation can reduce the stress response, inflammatory response and the production of stress hormones, putting less stress on your heart. Another way to release stress and anger is through exercise, therapy or doing the exercise at the end of this article.
5. Risk: Eating an unhealthy diet.
Answer: Follow a diet void of sugar, unhealthy fats and processed foods.
A diet loaded with processed foods, sugar and bad fats can have a detrimental impact to your health, especially cardiac health. Eating a diet that consists of a variety of vegetables, some fruits, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats and proteins will benefit your health and your mood. Try the Mediterranean diet for starters.
6. Risk: Social isolation, loneliness or deficiencies in social relationships.
Answer: Join a support group, spiritual or religious group, community center or take a class in something you are interested in which will enable you to form new relationships.
There are different reasons people feel isolated and often it is a result of ongoing anxiety or depression. Working with a health care provider or support group will help solve both the depression and the feeling of being alone or on one’s own with a problem. You can also get or borrow a pet. There is nothing like the unconditional love that you can get from your animals.
Heart healing exercise:
Choose a virtue, value or victory that you are proud of or that you want to feel—like confidence, love, respect, peace, expansiveness, joy and so forth.
Then close your eyes
Breathe in as you count 1-2-3.
Breathe out as you count 1-2-3-4-5.
When you exhale, imagine you are releasing your thoughts, worries, stress and tension into the clouds.
Keep the same rhythm of the breath and focus on your heart.
When you exhale, imagine you are releasing your thoughts, worries, stress and tension from your heart into the clouds.
Do this for at least 5 cycles of breath.
As you inhale, imagine you are filling your heart with infinite love and compassion that come from the surrounding universe. Do this at least 5 cycles of breath.
On the 6th cycle, imagine your heart is free of stress and can now bloom like a flower.
Say these words as often as you wish (though for at least 10 cycles of breath), inserting your chosen virtue, value or victory in the blank space: “I like the feeling of _____.”
For example, you may say, “I life the feeling of inner peace.”
Allow your heart to expand like a flower and notice how much better you feel.
For more exercise and tips on heart health (or any part of your health or body), read Your Health Destiny.