Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are the world’s most lethal killers, claiming 17.3 million lives per year. This staggering statistic represents 30 percent of all global deaths per year according to the World Health Organization (WHO). By 2030, almost 23.6 million people will die from CVDs if comprehensive prevention and education programs are not implemented immediately.
The leading causes of cardiovascular disease include poor lifestyle habits such as inadequate diet, smoking, obesity and lack of physical activity. Risk factors for cardiovascular disease include high blood pressure, cholesterol, inflammation and elevated blood sugar levels that is commonly seen with diabetes.
Many of the risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease cause problems because they affect the blood flow to the heart, brain and body. This phenomenon is called atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis is the narrowing and thickening of arteries that develops for years without one even knowing it. This is one of the reasons that cardiovascular disease is known as the “silent killer”.
The hardening, narrowing and thickening of the arteries is due to the deposition of fatty material known as cholesterol to the walls of blood vessels. Inflammation in the body due to stress, poor diet and physical inactivity is the leading causes of high cholesterol.
Is cholesterol good or bad?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is a natural part of the every cell in the body. The body needs cholesterol for healing, brain function and nerve transmission. In essence, cholesterol is both good and bad.
There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL is commonly referred to as “bad” cholesterol, while is HDL is known as “good” cholesterol. Diet, exercise, sleep and stress reduction will spike “good” cholesterol while lowering “bad” cholesterol.
Stress, injuries and other aspects that negatively affect the body produce excess cholesterol as a healing response. Many chronic, or long-term, health conditions will spike cholesterol levels and put one at risk for a heart attack or stroke.
How to identify a heart attack or stroke
Some heart attacks are sudden and intense. Others start slowly, with only mild pain or discomfort, then progress over time. Commonly, a person experiencing a heart attack is not fully aware of what is happening and fails to get immediate medical attention. This can prove fatal.
A heart attack characteristically presents with shortness of breath or a feeling of congestion in the chest area. One can experience pain over the heart or in the middle of the chest as a result. However, pain is not limited to those areas as one can experience pain or discomfort in one or both arms, neck, jaw and back.
A stroke is always a medical emergency as it affects blood flow to different areas of the brain. The amount of damage is often dependent on the type and location of the stroke. Parts of the brain and nervous system can die if blood flow is blocked to those vital regions.
An emergency trip to the hospital is needed if one has sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arms or legs. Strokes can affect the vision in one or both eyes as well. It is common for a patient to characterize a sharp, piercing headache or think they are having the worst headache of their lives. Damage to the brain can also cause difficulty walking, dizziness, loss of balance and incoordination.
Tobacco damages the heart
Blood pressure plays a significant role in the development of a heart attack and stroke. Blood pressure is controlled by the flexibility and overall size of the blood vessels that supply blood to the body. Inflammation and excess cholesterol can limit the flow of blood, which ultimately increases the pressure within the blood vessel.
When the pressure increases, one’s heart must work harder to pump blood through the smaller space and wherever the blood is traveling to (e.g.: arms, toes, brain, etc.) will suffer. Blood carries vital nutrients and oxygen to tissues throughout body. The diminished blood flow ultimately affects the ability to heal. Over time, the tissues will deteriorate.
Tobacco contains chemicals that damage the lining of the blood vessels, producing inflammation and increasing fatty deposits in the arteries. Ingredients such as nicotine can raise blood pressure, increase heart rate and reduce oxygen flow to the brain and tissues.
Smoking is a highly destructive lifestyle choice that is overly addictive. It has been linked to weight gain, weight-loss resistance, physical inactivity and excessive chemical stress on the body. Deaths resulting from cardiovascular disease could be greatly reduced by simply eliminating or reducing tobacco use.
How to prevent cardiovascular disease
We are what we eat. Every choice that we make today will impact us tomorrow. One’s diet will play a significant role in the prevention or production of cardiovascular disease. Diets high in artificial processed fats, low in fresh vegetables and fruit, and high in alcohol are at the greatest risk of heart disease.
To help keep one’s blood pressure under control, and therefore lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, one should limit their salt intake. As much as 75 percent of the salt in the average diet comes from processed foods—everything from bacon to soups to salad dressings.
Salt is also used to preserve meat, fish and can sneak into one’s diet without knowing it. Choose foods with no added salt and prepare home-cooked meals with little or no salt. All-natural food items such as fruits, vegetables, fish and lean meats have very little salt.
The risk of developing a heart attack increases significantly with age. More than 80 percent of people who die of heart disease are 60 years of age or older. However, men have a greater risk of developing a heart attack earlier in life. Women are more susceptible to heart attack after menopause due to diminished levels of estrogen.
Estrogen is known to raise “good” HDL cholesterol, thus protecting a woman early in life. However, the positive effects of estrogen are negated if a woman is overweight, suffers from diabetes or has elevated cholesterol.
One may be at risk if a family member or parent has developed a heart attack or stroke at an early age. Genetics is no longer the primary explanation for the high occurrence of cardiovascular diseases. Learned lifestyle habits such as exercise, diet and stress management have been found to play a significant role in the development of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
Good lifestyle habits are the most effective ways to prevent cardiovascular disease regardless of your age, gender or race.
The good news: Even if your mother or father had heart disease, you can still make personal lifestyle improvements that reduce your risk significantly. Your choices are not genetic, they’re just habit.
Dr Cory Couillard is an international healthcare speaker and columnist for numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and publications throughout the world. He works in collaboration with the World Health Organization's goals of disease prevention and global healthcare education. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement.
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