Avoiding Heart Disease - by Dr David Delvin

When you reach your retirement years, what’s the biggest threat to your health - for most people it’s the risk of heart attacks

To be frank, retirement age is the age when these attacks could start getting more frequent.

Now don’t give up reading at this point! You see, heart attacks CAN be prevented or at least the risk minimised. And if you read on, you’ll find out the best ways of minimising the risks ………

WHAT ARE HEART ATTACKS?

But first of all, what actually IS a heart attack?

It’s a sudden crisis that occurs when the blood supply to part of the heart is cut off. The most common symptoms are (and this list is not exhaustive):

  • Sudden severe pain in the centre of the chest
  • Collapse
  • Sometimes unconsciousness

So what cuts off the blood supply?  It happens because one of the tubes which carries blood to the heart (the ‘coronary arteries’) gets blocked.

And the reason why these narrow little pipelines get blocked is the fact that throughout our adult lives they are deteriorating.

Yes, extraordinary though it sounds, the coronary arteries start looking a bit battered by the age of 18! The walls of these little tubes get infiltrated by fatty deposits, so that they become rough and bumpy.  Result: by the age of 55, most people have arteries that are decidedly narrowed.

In such a constricted tube, it’s all too easy for a clot to form – so that blood can’t get through. Result: a heart attack

WHY DO YOUR CORONARY ARTERIES DETERIORATE

OK, but why do your coronary arteries get more and more beaten up as you grow older? Mainly it’s down to our Western lifestyle, which features (let’s be frank!) so many unhealthy habits.

After all, if you go back to pre-history human beings spent most of the last few hundred thousand years being fit, lean, active creatures who lived by roaming around and finding fruit, berries and nuts, and by chasing wild animals – or running away from them!

Only in the last 100 years have many of us started spending our lives sitting at desks or in armchairs, eating rich food and perhaps smoking. And amazingly, it was only in about 1910 that men and women first started getting heart attacks.

1910! Isn’t that astonishing? So this really is a pretty modern disease.

During the rest of the 20th century, the United States rapidly became the ‘heart attack capital’ of the world – with other highly-developed countries (such as  Britain) not far behind.

What happened was that when nations managed to achieve more luxurious lifestyles, their heart attack rates started to rise to terrifying levels.

The same thing did NOT happen in ‘third world’ or ‘underdeveloped’ countries. In nations where life remained simple, and where people didn’t eat a lot of rich food, or sit around a lot, or smoke … well, heart attack rates remained very low. I practiced in one such country for two years, and never saw a single patient with a heart attack.

Fortunately, in Britain and the USA things began to improve quite a bit during the last part of the 20th century. Heart attack rates started to fall at last, as people started doing sensible things. Things like:

  • Giving up smoking
  • Eating less fatty food
  • Getting more exercise

However, although our national heart attack incidence has fallen over the last 20 years or so, this condition does still remain a very real threat to the over-50s.

So in this article, I’m going to tell you what YOU can do help keep yourself from being a ‘heart attack statistic.’

In fact, there are Six things you can do … Please read on.

1. GET PLENTY OF EXERCISE

I recently made up a little poem, which I’m going to stick on my consulting room wall. It says:

‘To keep heart attacks away, Get some exercise every day!’

And it’s the truth. Experts have found that humans do really need regular exercise. If at all possible, you should exercise for at least half an hour a day, seven days a week. If you can’t manage that, then do FIVE days a week.

What sort of exercise? Well, it’s got to be ‘proper’ exercise – not just walking to the pub or taking the dog for a bit of a stroll!

Good forms of exercise include:

  • Really brisk walking
  • Jogging
  • Swimming
  • Tennis
  • Working out in the gym.

What about golf? Well, the Royal and Ancient game, so beloved of many over-50s, is a wonderful thing. It’s certainly better exercise than doing nothing. However, if you go round on a motorized buggy, 18 holes certainly won’t give you any real exercise.  But striding briskly round the links is not a bad form of giving your body a work-out.

If by any chance you can’t get out of the house, do remember that one of those static exercise bikes is pretty good.  So too is a rowing machine.

2. CUT DOWN ON YOUR FAT INTAKE – PARTICULARLY SATURATED FATS

A great deal of the blame for the western epidemic of heart attacks can be laid at the door of fats. Today’s human beings still eat far too much of them – and a lot of the fatty stuff ends up being deposited in your coronary arteries, and causing real trouble.

The fats which are really dodgy for your arteries are the ones which are called ‘saturated’ fats. Most – but not all – of them are of animal origin.

They are contained in all sorts of foods, but notably;

  • Butter;   Cheese;   Meat;   Full fat milk;   Fried things;   Anything which is made with fat, like pastries and cakes

To cut down on your saturated fats, it’s well worth reading the small print on food packaging – and simply not buying anything that contains a lot of ‘saturates.’

Admittedly, those tiny letters aren’t easy to read! To be frank, I don’t think that some of the manufacturers are too keen on letting you know how fatty their products are.

So, take care …

3. GET YOUR CHOLESTEROL DONE REGULARLY

Now this one is linked with the question of fat intake. Cholesterol is a type of fat (or ‘lipid’) in your blood. Years ago, it was found that if the cholesterol level is high, that increases your chances of heart attack.

Cholesterol comes mainly from the saturated fat we eat. So if yours is high, it’s a powerful warning that you MUST cut down on your intake of saturates. And you may need to take a prescribed cholesterol-lowering drug as well.

Once you reach your middle years, it is really well worth having your cholesterol checked – and then getting your GP’s opinion about how normal the level is.

When they take the blood test, they’ll also check on the level of various other lipids in your bloodstream as well.

A complicating factor is that there are TWO types of cholesterol:

  • ‘Bad’ cholesterol          ‘Good’ cholesterol

Obviously, the ideal thing is to have very little of the ‘bad’ cholesterol! And exercise and sensible eating will help to keep the ‘bad’ cholesterol low.

How often should you have a cholesterol test done?

I’d say that for the average person of retirement age, once every few years is sufficient. But anyone whose cholesterol has been raised would need to have it done more often that. The same is true of anybody who is at some special risk of heart attack – or who has already had one.

4. HAVE YOUR BLOOD PRESSURE CHECKED

Raised blood pressure is a strong ‘risk factor’ for heart attacks – and for strokes. 

Keeping your ‘BP’ down to normal levels will reduce your chances of these things happening.

So, anyone who is over about 40 should have their pressure checked every few years. And if your BP has ever been up, then it should be checked a lot more often than that.

If you are found to have high blood pressure (‘hypertension’), there’s no need to panic. Exercise will help to bring it down, and so too will shedding excess pounds. And these days, there are lots of good prescribed medications for restoring BP to normal.

5. DON’T SMOKE

Smoking is a really major cause of heart attacks. Indeed, very few premature deaths from heart trouble occur in non-smokers.

So if you want to prevent yourself from having an attack, please don’t use tobacco! If you’re already a smoker, then GIVE UP!  Help is available and it is so important to your overall health

Note: if you have already had a heart attack, then to go on smoking is virtually suicidal, I’m afraid.

6. AVOID STRESS

Avoiding stress is NOT easy, is it? But a lot of people do find it a lot easier once they’ve retired.

Although stress isn’t a huge factor in causing coronary trouble, in comparison with (say) smoking, it’s still worth doing.

So if your life is still hard-pressed and rushed, why not try and make it a little less so?

As a great American golfer once said: ‘Take time to smell the flowers’!

© 2008 Dr David Delvin / Retirement Matters Ltd. All rights reserved.