Our heart is something that most of us take for granted.
It beats day in and day out, keeping us alive without us having to give it a second thought and we expect it to carry on doing so. However, things can go wrong with it, and the consequences can be terrifying, painful and in the worst case scenario can be fatal.
If more people understood the working of the heart and how we can look after it better—as well as the warning signs of heart problems—we could dramatically reduce the number of people suffering from heart disease.
The warning signs
Most of us have seen a heart attack on TV or in a movie. It’s usually depicted as something that happens very quickly and is easily recognizable as a heart attack—the victim clutches his chest and drops to the floor.
In reality, heart attacks are usually much harder to identify.
There are several warning signs to look for. A pressure or pain in the chest which lasts for a few minutes or comes and goes could be a sign of a heart attack. Discomfort in one or both arms, back, stomach or jaw could indicate a heart attack, as could shortness of breath, nausea and dizziness.
If you, or someone you are with experiences any of these symptoms call the emergency services immediately. Quick action can minimize the damage and increase chances of a full recovery. ‘Time is muscle’ is the well-known saying, meaning the quicker you get help, the greater the chances of saving the heart’s muscle.
What causes heart problems?
Many factors can increase the risk of heart attacks including: smoking, family history of heart disease at a young age, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, lack of physical exercise and diabetes.
Some of these are beyond our control, but others are lifestyle factors that we choose and can influence.
To fully understand the importance of these lifestyle choices we need to understand the impact they have on our heart and the damage they can cause.
How the heart works
The heart is a powerful muscle in our chest which pumps nutrients and oxygen around our body via arteries and removes waste and carbon dioxide from our body via veins. It is a fragile system and relies upon the smooth passage of blood through the arteries and veins to continue functioning properly.
As we get older, the smooth inner lining of the arteries (known as the endothelium) become damaged and thickened due to an accumulation of fatty material called atheroma—mostly made up of cholesterol—and this leads to atherosclerosis.
Blood platelets get caught on the damaged lining. This has a snowball effect as once a few get stuck others then get stuck on them and it gradually build up eventually meaning the artery is completely blocked and the blood can no longer flow through it.This is known as a blood clot.
The heart muscle beyond the clot is no longer receiving the oxygen and nutrients it needs to survive. If this lasts for more than a few minutes the affected muscle cells become permanently damaged. If this occurs in the coronary vessels it causes a heart attack, or a stroke if it occurs in the brain.
How to reduce the risks
Exercise and diet are the main factors that we can influence to help to reduce the risk of having heart problems.
The heart is a muscle and the harder you train it the stronger that muscle becomes. By doing regular exercise you can help to lower your blood pressure, manage your weight and decrease stress levels, all contributory factors in heart problems. Guidelines suggest 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise five times a week.
There are cardiac rehabilitation programs available for people who are recovering from heart problems that help the patient to identify the correct level of exercise for them. It is important to start off slowly and gradually build up.
A healthy and well-balanced diet can go a long way in reducing the risk of heart attacks. The target should be a diet that is low in salt and saturated fat and high in fruit, vegetable and fiber. Soluble fiber helps to reduce cholesterol levels and can be found in oats, beans and pulses. Try to replace the saturated fat in your diet with monounsaturated fats instead. Make sure oily fish is a key part of your diet as it helps to reduce triglycerides (fat in the blood). Many processed foods can be high in saturated fats and salt so get into the habit of reading the food labels so you know what you are eating.
Time well spent
A greater appreciation of the importance of the heart makes it easy to understand the alternative uses of the word ‘heart’ to mean the center and the soul of something. Our hearts are arguably our most important organ and by spending a bit of time learning about how they function and how to look after them we can increase our chances of a long and healthy life, as well as recognizing the signs of others in need of help.
Claire Barlow is a freelance health writer working with PCM and ethical online health provider to deliver heart health information to individuals. She has also written on behalf of a number of addiction support groups. Claire grew up in Southampton, PA but currently resides over in Sardinia where she has family.
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Asst Ed: Terri Tremblett/Ed: Kate Bartolotta