Heart disease, or cardiovascular disease, is the leading cause of death in the world. It accounts for approximately a third of global deaths – that’s nearly 20 million people per year.
Fortunately, cardiovascular disease is highly preventable. While some risk factors cannot be changed – like genetic susceptibility or age – others certainly can, by adopting a healthy diet, increasing physical activity and managing stress.
What is cardiovascular disease?
Cardiovascular disease is an umbrella term that refers to a class of diseases of the heart and blood vessels. They can be quite insidious and ultimately manifest as heart attacks, strokes, arrhythmias or aneurysms.
Oftentimes, an artery gets clogged or damaged which results in reduced blood flow, and essentially reduced oxygen to certain parts of an organ. If an artery in the heart is blocked, it can cause a heart attack; if this happens in the brain, it can lead to a stroke.
Modifiable risk factors for cardiovascular disease include poor diet habits, smoking, lack of physical activity and high stress.
How to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease
When it comes to reducing the risk of heart disease, the factors listed above are the main areas to focus on. It basically comes down to lifestyle habits. The food you eat either contributes to the formation of plaque within blood vessels or contributes to healthy blood vessels. How much physical activity you engage in either contributes to the strength of your heart muscles or to the increase in your blood pressure. In all cases, we have the ability to choose our habits.
Healthy habits to adopt
Eat well: Enjoy a diet that is rich in whole foods. A combination of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds should be a staple in everyone’s diet. Equally important is the avoidance of refined sugar, processed foods and trans-fats. Refined sugar and processed foods increase blood glucose, which not only drives inflammation but also increases insulin, and high insulin is a major precursor to heart disease. Trans-fats contribute to the pool of bad fats in the body; this is the kind of fat that sticks to blood vessels, increases bad cholesterol and oxidative stress.
Exercise: Give your heart a workout. While physical activity may look slightly different for each of us, 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week is recommended. This could mean taking a brisk walk, swimming or cycling. Having 25 minutes of high-intensity exercise three times a week can also work – this would involve going for a run or doing HIIT. The goal is to get your hearting beating and your blood flowing.
Manage stress effectively: Stress in the body triggers the fight-or-flight response. The hormones released in this process contribute to increased blood pressure and blood glucose, which puts the body at risk of cardiovascular disease. We tend to further raise the risk by unhealthy stress management techniques like comfort eating, smoking and drinking. Learning to manage stress in a healthy way can actively reduce the risk of heart disease. Deep breathing decreases stress while increasing nitric acid – a substance that protects the blood vessels. Journalling and meditating are additional ways to keep stress at a minimum.
Finally, regular screening is an important part of reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Monitoring your blood pressure, cholesterol and insulin levels allows you to make changes to your daily habits when necessary, or begin medication if the need arises. Remember that the risk of cardiovascular disease can be reduced with a healthy, balanced lifestyle.