It’s becoming much more common nowadays to hear about someone getting a heart attack at a really young age. What we initially thought was an old man’s disease is now proving to complicate the lives of much younger men and women alike.
I remember the youngest person I attended to years ago with a heart attack. He was 22, just recently married to him and his wife having the whole lives ahead of them. They had barely gotten settled into married life when he one day suddenly complained of chest pains and was incapacitated. We had never seen such an extensive heart attack in such a young person in our Emergency Department prior to that.
In today’s society though, this is moving steadily to becoming the norm.
Why does this happen?
If only I had the power to predict exactly who amongst us in the population would be getting a heart attack and when I would be joyously rolling around in my huge pile of money. Ultimately, we know that there are certain people or habits which can predispose you to get a heart attack (or a myocardial infarction in medical terms).
How do heart attacks happen? Basically, this happens because the blood supply (which carries oxygen and nutrients) to the heart is compromised. When there is a lack of oxygen to the heart tissues and muscles, it loses its functionality.
When this happens, the heart is no longer capable of pumping out blood to the rest of the body resulting in things like fainting episodes, comas, chest pains, sweating, and the general feeling of being unwell and in distress.
Now, coming back to my vivid memory of this young man, the only thing he did that put him significantly at risk of getting a heart attack was smoking. This jolly, active, vibrant man used to smoke about 20-30 cigarettes a day. He was a builder, a hard worker, and an overall good man. You’d never think it when looking at him, but his heart was probably already weakened before he turned 20.
Apart from that, there are few other risk factors that you should look out for. These include:
- High blood pressure – we’re noticing a surge in the number of young people diagnosed with metabolic diseases (diabetes, hypertension, obesity, high cholesterol) nowadays due to lifestyle practices.
- High blood cholesterol
- Diabetes and prediabetes
- Being overweight or obese (this means a body mass index of over 25 for Asians and takes note that we Malaysians are statistically obesity champions in this part of the world!)
- Being physically inactive – the lifestyle might seem like a dream to some, but trust me; your heart would prefer you get up off your butt and get moving.
- Having a family history of early heart disease – a first degree relative with an attack early on in life should prompt you to take better care of your health.
- Having a history of preeclampsia (high blood pressure) during pregnancy
- Unhealthy diet – once again, very difficult for us here with the abundance of good food from all over the world available nearly 24 hours a day. Self-control and discipline may sound like dull traits but your heart will show its gratitude by beating well for longer.
- For a woman, things like starting your period at a young age and going through menopause earlier also predispose you to have heart attacks. For one, you lose the protective effects of estrogen. Studies have shown that after menopause, there is statistically no difference in the rate women get heart attacks over men whereas, before menopause, it’s more like 1:3
How do we assess heart health?
So, how do we know whether our heart is doing a good job? Thankfully, in this day and age, there are multiple ways to determine this.
Ease in performing daily activities is one of the simplest ways to assess your heart health. For example, are you out of breath from walking in a shopping mall? Or can you climb flights of stairs without fear of fainting or excruciating leg cramps?
If you do feel like you are getting more and more tired whilst performing simple daily activities, it is best to consult your doctor. We have questionnaires and heart assessment scores and risk stratification modules to help diagnose these things.
More definitive tests are readily available in a doctor’s office as well. A well-equipped clinic will be able to provide important information about your heart with the aid of ECG and stress tests. Blood tests to check cholesterol and glucose levels will serve as indicators to how much you need to do to lessen the risks of heart disease.
The first and most basic things a doctor would check for you would be your pulse rate, blood pressure and a simple physical examination to look for any signs of heart disease. Ideally, your pulse rate should be between 60 and 80 beats per minute. You’d note that usually athletes or people who exercise more frequently will have a lower resting heart rate, it can be a bit of a bragging point really.
Blood pressures should read between 110 to 140 mmHg for the top numbers and between 60-90mmHg for the bottom numbers ie 120/80mmHg.
Serial testing and examinations like this are crucial in assessing and maintaining heart health and it is best advised that you see your doctor to get this process started nearly immediately.
Moving on to more testing methods, an ECG (electrocardiogram) is a simple test done in a matter of minutes to show a print out of your heart’s electrical activity. On reading this, we can determine the rate and importantly rhythm of your heart to get a good idea of how it’s working.
A more thorough test would be doing an exercise stress test where we run the ECG tests multiple times when having your work out on a treadmill. This gives us a reading of your heart activity when it is being worked out. Fairly easily explained in the name of the test, isn’t it? This test is usually done over a course of 30 minutes or so under the supervision of medical personnel.
And finally, basic medical screening blood and urine test should be done regularly as well to ascertain heart health. Simple blood tests for cholesterol and sugar levels to check for any of these diseases like the aforementioned are vital in assessing and maintaining heart health.
Do supplements work?
Think back to the last time you stepped into a pharmacy. Shelves from ceiling to floor with a myriad of supplements, all of them promising to protect or heal every part of your body. I’m sure you’ve wondered which are really necessary or whether they even work. I know I have.
In the US, renowned physician; Dr Jenkins and his team conducted a comprehensive of 179 randomized controlled trials published between January 2012 and October 2017 — both before and after the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force published their guidelines.
The researchers used studies from the Cochrane Library, MEDLINE, and PubMed databases.
The review revealed that the four most popular supplements — vitamin D, calcium, vitamin C, and multivitamins — have no cardioprotective benefit.
Even so, there is no reason to be disheartened. There are supplements that do the job of a “heart guardian” in the market and are worth a second look. They are coenzyme Q10, omega-3 fatty acids and astaxanthin.
Coenzyme Q10, often shortened as CoQ10, is an enzyme that the body naturally produces to facilitate important functions including blood pressure regulation and nutrient transport all over the body. It also helps in converting food into energy.
Studies in both 2007 and 2013 both showed that CoQ10 does improve heart condition and helps with heart health in people with existing heart failure.
Natural production of CoQ10 slows down as we age, so it’s a good idea to add foods high in CoQ10 or supplements to one’s diet. Fish, meat, and whole grains are particularly high in CoQ10.
Apart from CoQ10, Omega-3 fatty acids are among the most important nutrients when it comes to cardiovascular health. There is extensive science that supports the use of omega-3 fatty acids to improve blood pressure and cholesterol.
It may seem counter-intuitive that the body needs these “good” fats to prevent the build-up of plaque. It’s important to distinguish between the types of fat needed to function properly and support, and bad types of fat (ie. hydrogenated oils), which are now known to be inflammatory and damaging to blood vessel lining.
Omega-3 fats are one of the good kinds, and studies have shown that they can help reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and keep the heart beating steadily.
Fish, nuts, and seeds are high in omega-3 fats, with the priority going to fish sources, as they are highest in the EPA and DHA fats. Incorporate them into your diet, or look for a quality supplement, such as fish oil supplements derived from salmon or cod.
And finally, in my pick of supplements to try and keep your heart pumping as well as it can be, I’ve also found that Astaxanthin (pronounced “as-ta-zan-thin”) is a very unique antioxidant that is known for giving many fish and shellfish a bright pink colour. The purest form of this powerful antioxidant is derived from very small algae.
Strong research shows that astaxanthin can support heart health, in addition to its anticancer and anti-inflammatory effects. Recent clinical studies suggest astaxanthin supports cardiovascular health and helps maintain cholesterol levels already within a normal range.
As an added bonus, further research is being conducted to explore astaxanthin’s other potential benefits, including supporting cognitive function, improving athletic performance, and reducing signs of aging in the skin.
So the next time you are faced with wall to wall choices on supplements, remember to always go for what is clinically tested and proven so that you get your money’s worth. Oh, and I hope my few suggestions here help as well.
What can I do to keep myself from getting heart attacks?
In addition to taking specific supplements to combat heart disease, apply these general guidelines to your diet and lifestyle:
1) Cut back on salt
Too much salt in your blood creates an osmotic gradient that draws water into the bloodstream. The result is high blood pressure, which can weaken and potentially damage the walls of blood vessels. This also makes the heart work harder to pump blood throughout the body.
Most of the salt that we consume come from packaged foods or restaurant meals. Look first to decrease the amount of these foods in your diet.
Surely you’ve seen people at the grocery store aisle pouring over reading the small print on labels there. This is a good habit to pick up. Whenever shopping for food, look for its nutrient contents and specifically for the salt content in these foods.
2) Reduce your intake of saturated and trans fats
How often have you heard the phrase ‘this is sinfully good’? The reality is that when pastries are made with love and lard, it really does taste that much better. Unfortunately, trans fats like hydrogenated oil which is found in pastries and fried foods increase the amount of bad cholesterol in the body and increase inflammation.
Overconsumption of saturated fats may contribute to the accumulation of plaque in the bloodstream. Avoiding trans fats completely, and moderating saturated fat directly reduces their negative impact on your cardiovascular system.
3) Smoking cessation
Smoking and secondhand smoke cause stress on the body and especially the heart. Quitting smoking is painful at first, but the benefits are well worth it. Positive changes, such as a lower heart rate, occur as soon as 20 minutes after smoking. The risk of a heart attack also drops within the first 24 hours, while plaque build-up slows down over time.
There are now many methods to help a person kick the smoking habit. This ranges from nicotine gum, patches, cognitive behaviour therapy, hypnosis and even new technology that allows a cigarette to burn cleaner and with less tar so that the smoker only gets the nicotine effects.
Basically, in this day and age of beautiful technological marvels, there should be less and less of an excuse for someone to not be able to quit smoking. (Read:
4) Get your blood pumping through exercise
Physical activity lowers risks for cardiovascular disease by controlling weight gain, increasing the amount of good cholesterol in the body, and regulating blood pressure.
What’s better is that in time, both you and your heart will be the envy of many as you gain muscle tone, build and heart vitality.
5) Manage stress: the mind-body connection
Stress and anger are physical, as well as a psychological burden. These factors can increase your likelihood of getting a stroke. Manage stress by meditating, building a strong support network, and visiting a mental health provider, if necessary.
All in All
To sum it all up, please do not neglect your heart health with the excuse that you’re still young. There are plenty of things you can do to ensure that your heart is in peak pumping rhythm as per my suggestions in this article. Its crucial to look after your body so that it can look after you as well.
It really isn’t pleasant to be lying out on a hospital bed being unable to enjoy the beauty and spectacle that is our one beautiful life. Remember, you are responsible for your happiness, your health and your well being.
That said, I hope these few tips can bring about great improvements in your overall health.