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How can I reduce my heart health risks?

February is heart health month, so we spoke to Jennifer Price, an advanced practice nurse with the Women’s Cardiovascular Health Initiative (WCHI) at Women’s College Hospital, about heart health risks and how to reduce them.

Heart disease is the number one of killer of both women and men, and the risk factors for heart disease are very common.

“Most people in Canada over the age of 20 have some kind of risk factor for a chronic disease,” says Price.

For heart health, the traditional risk factors include:

  • smoking
  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • high cholesterol
  • diabetes
  • family history
  • inactivity
  • poor diet
  • stress
  • depression

“A risk factor you can’t change is age,” says Price. “In women we often see cholesterol and blood pressure tied to menopause. Once women go through menopause that is a time when they start to gain a little bit of weight and their cholesterol value goes up and their blood pressure goes up. It’s certainly something for women to be very aware of and to make sure that their family doctors are checking their cholesterol values and checking their blood pressure and treating it if it is high.”

Given the nature of heart health risk factors, reducing risk may mean making some challenging changes.

“Nothing is quick and easy because most of it revolves around lifestyle changes,” Price says. “We know it’s hard to make changes in behaviour.”

One of the most helpful changes is to become smoke-free.

“Even 40 years ago people were saying that the number one way to reduce risk factors and help your health is quit smoking: that is really important,” Price says. “We know it’s hard to quit smoking but there are therapies to help you quit such as nicotine replacements (gum or patches), medication (buproprion), and also supportive counselling.”

Price notes that for most people, quitting smoking needs a multimodal approach: usually it requires more than one type of therapy, such as support from a health-care professional as well as nicotine replacement therapy.

Healthy diet and healthy weight are also important factors to heart health.

“Maintaining an optimal body mass index between 20 and 25 kg/m2 is really important. So that is watching what you eat, following Canada’s Food Guide, eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains and watching how much fat you get. Maintaining a healthy weight can help lower your blood pressure and lower your cholesterol,” Price says.

“Exercise is the other thing,” she adds, noting that the recommendation is 150 minutes of exercise per week. “So that’s walking for 30 minutes, five days a week. And that will help your heart health and general health as well. If you exercise, it will also help lower your bad cholesterol, raise your good cholesterol and lower your blood pressure.”

Managing mood and stress can also contribute to good heart health. That means getting help if you suffer from depression or have too much stress in your life.

“There’s always going to be stress in our lives,” Price says. “We live in a busy city, we live busy lives, we have stress. But if we can let go of the unnecessary stress, that’s really important as well, or if we can find ways to cope with stress. Lots of people cope with stress by running or going out for that good walk or doing something outside. Other people do yoga, meditation. For some people it’s reading a book in the bath.”

Carving out time for yourself is one of things that Price stresses in the WCHI program.

“You’re doing yourself a huge service and you’re doing your family a big service because you’re going to be healthier, and you’re going to be able to look after everybody else, which is one of the things that women really struggle with,” she says.

For women who have heart disease or have experienced a heart event, such as a heart attack, Price highly recommends completing a cardiac rehabilitation program.

“Less than 24 per cent of women who are hospitalized for cardiac events actually get to a cardiac rehab program,” she says. “If you’ve had a diagnosis of cardiac disease, going to cardiac rehab is really important and really valuable. And we know that improving activity actually improves your overall health and decreases your risk of death from all causes. So it is important for people – even if they feel good after a heart event – to get themselves into some kind of cardiac rehab program.”

For most people, reducing cardiac risks is an achievable and very worthwhile goal. As heart health month, February is the perfect time to start to make some heart-healthy changes in your life.


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