Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Simply put, we can’t live without a healthy heart. It’s the most important pump in our body, delivering more than 2,000 gallons of blood surging through your arteries each day. You might take it for granted that your heart is working normally, but heart disease is sometimes silent, until the day a blood clot ruptures and blocks one of the arteries supplying blood to the heart. That’s when you’re unexpectedly sidelined by a heart attack.
Fortunately, lifestyle has an impact on your risk of developing heart disease. Leading a heart-healthy one can prevent or delay the onset of heart disease or a heart attack. Now, let’s look at a few facts you might not know about your heart and how what you don’t know can impact your health.
You’re More at Risk for a Heart Attack at Certain Times
You’ve probably heard that stress plays a role in heart attacks. How so? Stress boosts the release of stress hormones, like adrenalin and noradrenaline, that cause your arteries to clamp down and your blood pressure to rise. When do you feel most stressed? Like most people, you probably feel a bit more harried on Monday morning when it’s time to go back to work – and guess what? The incidence of heart attacks peaks on Monday. Not only that but the incidence of irregular heart rhythms is higher on Monday than any other day of the week. So, be gentle on yourself on Sunday night and Monday morning. Do something relaxing and don’t forget to get plenty of sleep. Ease into the work week to keep stress to a minimum. We have a tendency to overcommit on Monday morning and that may be the worst time to overfill your schedule.
Women Are More Likely to Have “Silent” Heart Attacks than Men
Yes, you can have a heart attack without symptoms. Occasionally, changes consistent with a heart attack show up on an electrocardiogram, a tracing of the activity of the heart, without an individual experiencing symptoms – and it’s more likely to happen to women and people who have type 2 diabetes.
Women are also more likely to develop heart disease of smaller blood vessels, also known as small vessel disease, whereas men typically have blockage and disease in one of the three major coronary arteries. Small vessel disease can lead to heart attacks that are subtler in nature. Plus, women are more likely to have atypical symptoms with a heart attack such as fatigue, indigestion, lightheadedness, dizziness, nausea as opposed to classic symptoms, like chest pain and shortness of breath. No wonder health care professionals are more likely to miss a heart attack diagnosis in women!
Inflammation Plays a Role in Heart Attacks
While we think of high cholesterol as being a major factor in heart disease, it’s likely that inflammation plays a role as well. In fact, higher levels of an inflammatory marker called C-reactive protein, or CRP, is linked with a higher risk of heart attack. What’s more, it may be as good of a predictor of future heart attack risk as an elevated cholesterol level. You can check your CRP level at the same time you get your blood drawn for a cholesterol level. Ask your heart care provider about this.
Your Risk May Be Higher After the Flu
As mentioned, heart attacks are linked with inflammation. Studies also show that the risk of heart attack is higher after a bout of influenza and after respiratory infections. In fact, a study showed that when you account for the higher risk of heart attack associated with influenza, flu may kill up to 90,000 people per year. Disturbingly, a study found that the risk of heart attack was five times higher during the first three days after a bout with the flu or other respiratory infection.
How might influenza raise the risk of a heart attack? When you have a virus, your immune system mounts an inflammatory response to fight the infection. An overzealous bout of inflammation may create enough damage to the walls of arteries to cause a clot to form in a vessel that supplies blood to the heart. When that plaque ruptures, you sustain heart damage, what we call a heart attack. The risk of stroke is also higher after a respiratory infection. The only difference is the blockage occurs in an artery that carries blood to the brain.
How can you lower your risk? Get an influenza vaccine. Flu coverage varies, depending upon the year and the strain, but your risk of developing the flu is lower if you’re vaccinated. In fact, a study found that get vaccinated against influenza reduces the risk of stroke and heart attack by one-third over the following year. Also, take precautions – wash your hands thoroughly and frequently and stay away from people who are ill. Don’t forget about common sense things like getting enough sleep and eating a nutrient-dense, whole food diet.
When You Go Through Menopause Impacts Heart Attack Risk
Going through menopause earlier in life is linked with a greater risk of heart attack. Research shows that women who go through the change of life before the age of 46 are twice as likely to develop heart disease or experience a stroke. You don’t have control over when you go through menopause, but smoking is linked with earlier menopause. So, if you’re a smoker, kick the habit. As you can see, smoking increases your risk of heart disease and stroke in more than one way. If you do go through menopause early or smoked in the past, make sure you’re leading a heart-healthy lifestyle.
The Bottom Line
There are things all of us can do to lower the risk of heart disease and stroke:
· Eat a Mediterranean diet that emphasizes whole foods and lots of plants.
· Exercise regularly and include some aerobic exercise in your routine.
· Practice some form of stress reduction such as yoga or meditation. Listening to relaxing music, writing in a journal, and engaging in art are other ways to reduce stress.
· Make sure you’re getting enough magnesium in your diet.
· Follow your blood pressure and blood sugar closely. If your blood sugars start to rise, take action early. Don’t let pre-diabetes become diabetes.
· Maintain a healthy body weight.
· Follow your lipid levels.
American Heart Association. “inflammation and Heart Disease”
WebMD. “Heart Disease and C-Reactive Protein (CRP) Testing”
Harvard Health Publishing. “Flu shot linked to lower heart attack, stroke risk”