What is the no.1 killer of men and women in the U.S? I got this wrong. My reflex response would be cancer. Like I said. Wrong. For the weekend that’s in it (Sorry St. Valentine), it turns out that the leading cause of death in men and women in the United States is a broken heart, literally, a heart that is broken – heart disease.
As a runner, I seem to be uber conscious of my health and generally always wanting to feel good. I carefully plan my training schedule so as to avoid doing too much, too quickly but also so as to ensure I’m getting fitter/strong in preparation for whatever event is coming up. I make time for strength training so as to prevent injury. I watch what I eat and drink every day to try and get in as much nutrition and good stuff as I can so that my muscles are getting what they need to repair and grow. I take ice baths even though I think they feel like some form of satanic evil. When I run, I’m always watching out for a niggle here, a twinge there, always, always prioritising the avoidance of injury. But what do I do to take care of my heart? Am I watching that too? Do I look out for a niggle here or there, or take steps to avoid injury? Ehhh.
I’ve no idea.
And that’s what’s so great about National Heart Month. This month is America’s National Heart month and I’ve teamed up with Bankers Healthcare Group to help raise awareness of the importance of heart health as part of their Take Charge Initiative. Not exclusive to runners (obvs), heart health is relevant to everyone and the importance of taking steps towards leading a healthier lifestyle can mean difference between life and death. A niggle in my achilles tendon, weak glutes or a rushed marathon training plan won’t mean jack if your heart is not in good order. If it doesn’t work, nothing works.
So let’s learn some stuff!
What is Heart Disease?
- Heart disease and stroke causes 1 in 3 deaths among women every year – that’s 1 woman every 80 seconds.
- What actually is Cardiovascular or Heart disease? Not that simple – there are a number of different forms of heart disease.
- Many problems associated with heart Disease relate to a condition called atherosclerosis. This is the buildup of a waxy substance called plaque inside the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart. This buildup causes the arteries to narrow, making it harder for blood to flow through and if a clot forms, it can stop the blood flow, which in turn can cause a heart attack or stroke.
- A stroke is what happens when a blood vessel that feeds the brain becomes blocked and if blood supply to part of the brain is shut off, brain cells will die and this may result in permanent irreversible brain damage (an ischemic stroke).
- Another form of stroke can occur when a blood vessel within the brain bursts, with the most likely cause of this being hypertension ( hemorrhagic stroke ).
- Heart failure – not what it sounds like! My grandad had this and I used to always wonder how he was still alive if his heart was failing all the time! But his heart failed for 35 years. What it actually means is that the heart is still working, it’s just not pumping blood as well as it should be. If left untreated, it can get worse.
- Arrhythmia– an abnormal rhythm of the heart. There are various types- the heart can beat too slow, too fast or irregularly. This can affect how well the heart works and it may not be able to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs.
- Heart Valve Problems -Problems can occur where the heart valves don’t allow blood to flow through as it should (stenosis) or where they don’t close properly and allow blood to leak through (regurgitation). Or when the valve leaflets bulge or prolapse back into the upper chamber ( mitral valve prolapse), this can cause blood to flow backward through them.
What Causes Heart Disease?
- Smoking. No shocker here. Smoking tobacco was one of the top 3 leading risk factors for disease and contributed to 6.2 million deaths in 2010 worldwide. Oh and second-hand smoke is included here too so please do take note smokers.
- Sedentary Lifestyle – 1 in 3 adults do not participate in any leisure activity. Lack of physical activity affects your risk of heart disease both on its own and by its effects on other major risk factors. Regular physical activity can help manage your weight and, in that way, help lower your LDL. It also can help raise HDL and lower triglycerides, improve the fitness of your heart and lungs, and lower blood pressure. It can also reduce your risk for developing diabetes or, if you already have the condition, lessen your need for insulin.
- High Blood Pressure.
- Obesity / carrying excessive weight.
What Can You Do to Prevent Heart Disease?
- Active Lifestyle – At least 30 minutes 5 days a week of moderate intensity is the recommended. Find something you love to do and you won’t need to be adding up minutes and tallying the week. I love to run, that’s what makes me happy at the moment and when I’m not running, I’m on my bike, swimming or trying to do all three in this ridiculous sport they call triathlon. But that’s me. If you like to dance, that’s awesome. Or maybe you like the zen of the swimming pool or a long walk listening to the radio. All good, my friend, just get moving.
- Healthy Weight – Studies show that those who are overweight or obese tend to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, resulting in a much higher risk of cardiovascular disease. This is because your heart (and your body generally) is having to work much harder than it’s intended to which pushes your body and puts it under excess pressure.
- Sleep More – My favourite one. Studies show that human beings need between 6-8 hours sleep every night and that too much or too little can increase the likelihood of cardiovascular problems. This can be tricky to nail down with work, family and social
commitments… not to mention endless online streaming of tv shows and movies which a lot of people take to bed with them these days resulting in bedtime being shoved right back until the last episode of Mad Men, Grey’s Anatomy or Love/Hate (if you’re Irish 😉 ) A new bedtime routine can be a good, as well as a refreshing change and could be just what you want, as well as need.
- Healthy Eating – This is a massive heading but if you were going to take just a few points away with you, remember these: Fiber, fat and salt.
Fiber. Make foods high in fiber not just an occasional guest in your diet but a starring role. Fiber is a carbohydrate that your body can’t break down, so it passes through the body undigested. It makes you feel full, which helps you eat less and perhaps lose weight, which in turn reduces blood pressure. It’s role in preventing heart disease is thought to stem from its ability to lower both blood pressure and cholesterol. Examples include vegetables, fruit, wholegrains and oatmeal.
Be smart about your fats. The debate about saturated fat rages on and its benefit/ damage to our health has yet to be definitively proven either way, with studies being forwarded by both sides of the debate. However, there are some clear points you can follow in relation to fats that will improve your heart health:
- Eliminate Trans fat. TFs (commercial baked goods like cookies, muffins, pizza, fried foods, pre-made cake mix, crisps, anything with “partially hydrogenated” oil…) have been linked with raising your LDL, or “bad” cholesterol level, which can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke. They have also been linked with lowering your levels of HDL or “good cholesterol.
- Eat more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat – These fellas have been linked with an ability to improve blood cholesterol levels and lower your risk of heart disease. Monos include avocados and nuts (and nut butters 🙂 ) Polys include oily fish like mackerel or salmon and plant-based oils such as olive oil or sunflower oil. If you’re not a fish person, look to flaxseed, kale, spinach, and walnuts to get your omega 3 fatty acids instead.
Reduce Salt – Salt has repeatedly been linked with high blood pressure. Sodium causes your body to retain water and if you eat too much salt, your body will store extra water, which will then raise your blood pressure. The higher your blood pressure, the greater the strain on your heart, arteries, kidneys and brain. Eating too much salt can also interfere with blood pressure medication.
Cook from Scratch – A lot of prepared or processed foods contain high amounts of salt, sugar and fat as well as a range of unpronounceable hidden additives which can contribute to high blood pressure and cholesterol, which lead to cardiovascular disease. Make it yourself and you know and can control exactly what goes into it. The salt shaker is literally in your hand.
Common Sense Boys and Girls.
You probably don’t need me to point out any of the above health food tips no more than you need a 200 euro consult with a qualified dietician to guess how you can improve your health. Eat less crap, less salt and less fatty takeaways, more fruit, more veg, more wholegrains and oh yeah, do it yourself. You know this. But what you might not have known is how directly and significantly all of these seemingly little things impact on the working of your heart.
If you’re a runner or triathlete, chances are that you are already taking substantial and effective steps towards ensuring a healthy heart but whether it’s for you or your loved ones, it’s no harm to be aware of the causes of heart disease and of the ways you can improve heart health.
Don’t dismiss it. It doesn’t take much but it could make a massive difference to your heart. You’re nothing without your heart so look after it. It’s the only one you’ve got.