The heart is one of the most vital organs in our body. National Geographic estimates our hearts beat 100,000 times a day, 40 million times a year, and over three billion times during our lives on average. These are enormous, humbling numbers that genuinely help us appreciate the scale of what our bodies are capable of without any input from ourselves.
Another humbling figure comes from the World Health Organization (WHO), which estimates that cardiovascular diseases are responsible for nearly 18 million annual global deaths. As global citizens, we're accustomed to discussing epidemics for things like seasonal flu or, more recently, COVID-19.
Yet, the cardiovascular disease epidemic has been with us for many years and continues to grow.
Taking steps to keep your heart healthy is one of the most significant positive lifestyle changes you'll ever make.
What are the most significant risk factors for cardiovascular diseases?
It pays to know what risk factors are at play to understand how you can improve your heart health.
One thing it's vital to understand about cardiovascular diseases is that some risk factors are beyond your control. These are:
- Your age. Men over 45 and women over 55 are at higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.
- Your family history. If your father or brother developed cardiovascular disease before age 55, or your mother or sister did before age 65, you're at higher risk.
While family history and genetics play a significant part in your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, other risk factors are within your control.
For example, you're at higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease if:
- You have high cholesterol or high blood pressure
- You smoke, even a little
- You’re overweight
- You have a sedentary lifestyle
- You eat an unhealthy diet
As you can see, these risk factors give you significant scope for lowering your risk by taking positive action.
How to keep your heart healthy
The benefits we can enjoy through improving and maintaining our heart health are clear. As well as reducing our risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, a healthy heart can help preserve the health of our other organs and lower our risk of developing conditions like type 2 diabetes.
Here are six ways to keep your heart healthy.
1. Making specific changes to your diet
How often do you hear "eat healthy" as advice, specifically for your heart or overall health?
We're not saying that "eat healthily" is terrible advice, but it isn't specific enough. So much information is available that it's easy to go down the wrong path when pursuing a healthier lifestyle.
To improve your heart health, make the following specific changes to your diet:
- Cut down on salt in your diet. Look out for the salt content of processed foods and even in products like pasta sauces. Choose reduced salt options if possible. You should also limit how much salt you use in your cooking and add to meals.
- Do the same thing with sugar. High sugar intake can lead to many health problems, and heart issues might only be the tip of the iceberg. If you love sweet foods, try fruit with yoghurt as a substitute for cakes and sweets.
- Reduce your saturated fat intake. Dairy, fatty meats, processed foods and pastries all contain high levels of saturated fat. Swap to skimmed milk, reduced-fat cheeses, and lean meats to reduce your saturated fat intake.
- Eat more fruit and vegetables. Eating your “five a day” is easy if you plan your meals. Not only do the nutrients in fruits and vegetables protect your heart, but they lower your cholesterol, too.
- Eat more fish. Oily fish like salmon and tuna are great for your heart. Combine fish twice weekly with fresh vegetables or salad for super-healthy, heart-protecting meals!
2. Staying active
Spending 150 minutes a week isn't asking much. Yet, modern life's demands mean exercise is too often the first thing we push from our daily agendas. You don't need to spend this time punishing yourself in the gym, either. Walking for a mere 30 minutes a day will help improve your heart health.
If you’re back in the office, why not take a walk at lunchtime or walk part of your journey to work? This will benefit your mental health as well as your heart!
3. Maintaining a healthy weight
Changing your diet and staying active will help you maintain a healthy weight.
If you start eating healthily and exercising but still struggle to lose weight, review your eating habits or consider increasing your exercise intensity. Also, consider consulting with your doctor, who may be able to provide advice to help you reach your health goals.
4. Quit smoking (and avoid smokers!)
Most studies say smokers are around 50% more likely to have a heart attack than non-smokers. However, the good news is that if you quit smoking, your body immediately enters a state of recovery. Your health starts to improve in the minutes after you smoke your last cigarette. In the following weeks and months, you'll experience several noticeable changes. After years without smoking, many ex-smokers are in the same position as someone who has never smoked in their lives from a clinical standpoint.
The United Kingdom’s National Health Service website has a comprehensive overview of the benefits of quitting smoking.
Breathing in second-hand smoke can also be detrimental to your health; make a habit of avoiding smokers so you don’t become a passive smoker yourself!
5. Reviewing your alcohol intake
Many studies have found moderate alcohol consumption can help to protect your heart. However, excessive consumption can have the opposite effect, damaging your heart muscle, pushing up your blood pressure, and increasing the risk of experiencing an abnormal heart rhythm.
Review your alcohol intake and cut back if necessary to protect your heart.
6. Managing stress
Stress alone can increase our heart rate and raise our blood pressure. However, it's often our reaction to stress that leads to more significant, long-term problems. For example, how often have you or someone you know decided you need a cigarette, consumed an excessive volume of alcohol, or indulged in comfort eating during times of stress?
Most of us have done one of these things at some point in our lives. Don't punish yourself if it happens - but try to ensure it doesn't happen all the time! Think about ways to manage your stress levels and mental health to help yourself protect your heart.
If you’re looking at products like international health insurance, look for plans with benefits or assistance programmes to help you manage and deal with stress.
Using World Heart Day to kickstart your drive for better heart health
29th September is World Heart Day, an annual event led by the World Heart Federation but promoted by healthcare stakeholders and heart charities worldwide. Whether you’ve found the health objectives you set for yourself at the start of the year flagging or want to focus more on your health, give your body the healthy heart it deserves!
Why not involve work colleagues, family members, and friends in whatever you plan to do to improve and protect your heart health, too?
Happy World Heart Day!