Know the signs: A man’s guide to heart health
Are you in danger of a heart attack?
Chest pains or just indigestion? Carrying a little weight around your middle? Stress levels higher than normal? Dashboard dining and eating pizza and chips a little too often? Are you in danger of a heart attack?
“Listen to your heart, not your head” is the advice for Irish men, for whom cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease and stroke, remains the leading cause of death.
In Ireland, five lives are lost to heart attack every day and the Irish Heart Foundation is urging Irish men to get to know the signs and call the emergency services at the first sign of a heart attack. “Too often men delay in getting to hospital – they don’t want to cause a fuss or they waste vital time calling friends or family first – which can prove fatal. Our message is simple, don’t die of embarrassment - call 999 at the first sign of a heart attack”.
In Ireland 42% of men aged between 51 and 64 are now obese and a further 44% are overweight. In this age group across the country right now only 14% of men are at a healthy weight.
The good news, however is that it is possible to take charge of your health and make inroads in to reducing the chances of a heart attack. Our hearts move us and like any motor, the heart needs care and needs to be fuelled properly and serviced regularly. This will help to pump the oxygen and nutrients in our blood around the body to feed all our organs and cells and carry back waste for removal.
The most common symptom of a heart attack, also known as Myocardial Infarction (MI) in men is chest pain. This is usually a crushing or tight pain which may move to the jaw or arms, particularly on the left side. There can also be symptoms such as sweating, shortness of breath, nausea, light-headedness, weakness or tiredness.
Crucially, 10% to 15% of people who have a heart attack may not feel anything, so it’s important to arm yourself with accurate information to ensure that you act quickly should you find yourself – or anyone you know in this critical situation.
Here are 7 positive steps towards a healthier heart that will help to minimise the risks of heart disease and stroke:
1. Strengthen your heart: Be active
Getting out and doing something that raises your pulse for at least 30 minutes, five days every week will make a big difference to heart health. You don’t have to run 10 miles at Olympic pace – a brisk walk or easy jog will do the job, as long as it is regular. Inactivity is a major risk for heart attack and stroke. The body is designed to be active on a regular basis and increasing the heart rate during activity triggers endorphins (happy hormones) and strengthens the heart over time. It’s a quick win that will reap the rewards in time.
2. Educate yourself: Heart health matters
A heart attack happens when the build up of fatty substance (atheroma or plaque) on the coronary artery wall tears or breaks and a clot forms in the artery blocking the blood supply to the heart. The risk of this life-threatening event happening increases as you get older if you don’t make a conscious effort to take care of your heart and if there is a history of heart disease in the family.
It’s also advised to know your blood pressure. If your blood pressure is high, it means your heart has to work extra hard to pump blood around the body. You may be unaware that your blood pressure is high because you feel well and look well, but high blood pressure can lead to a heart attack or stroke. It’s important to keep it in check. A stroke is a ‘brain attack’ and occurs when a blood vessel, which is carrying oxygen and nutrients to the brain, bursts or is blocked by a clot.
3. Eat your way to heart health
Healthy eating is all about balance. It’s about having a wide range of different foods and trying to avoid too much fatty, sugary or salty snack foods and most importantly – how much is eaten. Getting to know the Food Pyramid will help to monitor your diet, or availing of the information in the Healthy Eating brochure from the Irish Heart Foundation. For healthy cholesterol levels, Irish men are encouraged to cut back on the fatty stuff, eat fruit and veg every day and stop by the fish counter. Reducing salt is also key, as there are already high levels in processed or manufactured food these days. Think about your weekly diet and you’ll be soon eating your way to heart health.
4. Do you suffer from portion distortion?
Portion distortion is one of the big challenges when it comes to the dietary habits of Irish males. One of the best ways to lose weight and keep it off is to take note of portion sizes at meal times. Cut back if your plate looks too full! It’s advisable if at all possible to avoid too many processed meat products like meat pies and sausages, deep fried takeaway food, hard cheese, butter and margarine, cakes, biscuits and cream. Try making one change a day as it can be difficult to change regular habits easily and quickly.
5. Quit smoking: The single greatest killer
It’s well documented but smoking is now the single greatest killer in the modern world. Quitting smoking is the single most important thing you can do to live longer. Twenty minutes after you stop smoking your blood pressure and pulse return to normal. Within only one day, your risk of heart attack begins to fall. After one year, the risk of sudden death from heart attack is almost cut in half. There are many support services available when starting the road to quitting smoking but the good news is that stopping will have almost immediate beneficial effects.
6. Go easy on the booze
Drinking too much affects your heart and health. Alcohol is high in calories and contributes to weight gain. Alcohol can affect triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood. It can increase blood pressure which is a major risk for stroke. Prolonged and excessive use can cause irreversible damage to organs, particularly the liver.
Do you want to lessen the effects of a boozer binge? If you do find yourself out on the town or regularly socialising, try and at least implement a few changes: Walk to the pub and back if you can and it is easy to do it safely. Drink water regularly throughout the night or replace one or two drinks with water. It’s also adviseable to drink after a meal – not before. Another tip is to switch from a strong beer to a regular or light beer and try to have at least one alcohol-free day a week and build that up to two or three alcohol days a week – it’s less trauma for the body to keep within the recommended amount of alcohol and spreading it out over a few nights rather than in a single ‘binge’ causes less damage.
7. Are you stressed?
Stress can cause long-term problems for heart health, so it’s important to monitor stress levels. Are you short-tempered or irritable? Over-reacting to minor problems? Feeling tired a lot of the time? Eating irregularly? Forgetting things? If you’re feeling any of the above, it is likely that you are stressed. The link between stress, heart disease and stroke is complex and still not fully understood. If you feel stressed, your blood will produce more hormones and over time this can damage arteries and may lead to high blood pressure.
Tips to manage stress include getting active, getting more sleep, checking your diet, cutting down on alcohol, deep breathing and talking to friends, family or professionals if you do find that you are under extra pressure.
Getting to know your GP and knowing your family heart history is also key to your heart health. Your doctor will make a diagnosis based on a number of factors. Firstly, if you are having chest pain, the type of pain, the length of time that it is lasting and any provoking factors are very important information in helping the diagnosis. Secondly, your doctor will look at an image of the electricity going through your heart, called an electrocardiogram (ECG). There are certain patterns on the ECG which suggest a heart attack.
But how do you know the symptoms and how to respond? If you are in the unfortunate situation that you feel as if you are having a heart attack, every minute can matter, so don’t hesitate to call an ambulance on 999 or 112. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive sit and rest. Take an adult aspirin if you have one easily available, unless you have been told not to or are allergic to aspirin. Once you arrive in hospital and a heart attack is suspected, the doctor or nurse will give you oxygen and pain relief. The doctor will then decide what treatment is needed.
Listen to your heart – not your head!
If you are worried about heart problems and would like lifestyle advice, talk to an Irish Heart Foundation nurse in confidence on the National Heart and Stroke Helpline 1800 25 25 50 Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm or Thursday 9am to 7pm or email firstname.lastname@example.org.