Did you know every forty seconds, someone in the U.S. experiences a heart attack? Probably you know at least one person who’s had a heart attack, and the thought of suffering it yourself is undoubtedly scary. But thankfully, you can lower your risk for heart attacks by making certain lifestyle changes. Read on to learn what a heart attack is, heart attack risk factors, & how you can make small lifestyle changes for better heart health in the long run.
What is a heart attack?
You suffer a heart attack when the blood flow to the heart is restricted or cut off completely. That happens because blood shuttles oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. When the blood flow is reduced or cut off, parts of the heart muscles do not get oxygen and nutrients—the shortage of oxygen damages the heart muscle. However, the extent of the damage can vary.
Though the heart can recover from the attack by creating scar tissue, the heart may no longer be in good health, and so it may not pump blood as efficiently and effectively as it previously did.
One may have a heart attack without even knowing it because they do not always show the classic signs of sharp chest pain and sudden shortness of breath that you see in movies.
A heart attack is not the same as a cardiac arrest. In case of cardiac arrest, the heart beats abnormally fast and out of its normal rhythm or stops beating suddenly. Though the two are different, a heart attack may also cause cardiac arrest.
Why does a heart attack occur?
Heart attacks are called the silent killer. Let’s understand what causes a heart attack.
Fat, cholesterol, and other substances combine to form plaque, which tends to deposit along the lining of the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle. Healthy arterial walls are flexible and elastic. However, arterial walls harden over time due to the plaque deposits, narrowing the blood flow passage. Medically this condition is known as atherosclerosis which causes:
- The narrow passage reduces or stops the blood flow.
- The plaque may also burst, creating a blood clot. In addition, a part of the broken plaque may also travel in the bloodstream.
It’s not always possible to foresee a heart attack, as atherosclerosis often shows no signs. By the time we notice any symptoms, though, our arteries possibly are so narrowed or clogged that the blood supply gets adversely impacted. But thankfully, there are several risk factors we know that can increase our chances of having a heart attack. We’re better prepared to care for our heart and overall health by being aware of these risks.
These Six Things Can Make Us More Likely to Suffer a Heart Attack
Many factors can increase your risk of suffering a heart attack. Unfortunately, according to the American Heart Association, there are certain risk factors that you cannot change, such as your age, gender, family history of heart disease, and ethnicity and family history of heart disease. But thankfully, there are certain other risk factors that you can control, including:
High Blood Cholesterol – Bad Thing
Your liver produces cholesterol, a waxy substance. It plays a vital role in maintaining cell membrane structure, hormone production, and more within normal levels.
When we talk about high blood cholesterol levels, they mean lipoproteins, a substance that carries cholesterol in the bloodstream.
The presence of a high level of low-density lipoproteins, also known as LDL (or the “bad” cholesterol), means that a lot of cholesterol can be transported by these lipoproteins. Therefore, having a high level of LDL present causes a risk for atherosclerosis, which may lead to a heart attack in the long run.
And despite what you might have heard about cholesterol, eating foods containing cholesterol, like those found in shrimp, egg yolk, meat, and full-fat dairy products, may not necessarily increase your blood cholesterol. Instead, a diet high in trans fat and saturated fat may raise the LDL cholesterol level.
High triglycerides – Bad Thing
An increased LDL level plus a high triglyceride level puts you at an even greater risk of developing atherosclerosis.
Triglycerides are the most common type of fat present in the body. In addition to being stored inside the fat cells, they are also contained in the food you eat.
Your body can produce triglycerides out of some of the foods you eat.
Especially when you eat calories more than your body needs, eat more high-fat foods, or those with simple carbohydrates (such as soda and sweets), the excess is converted into triglycerides and stored as body fat.
So, making positive changes to your diet may help lower your LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels; as a result, reducing your risk for heart attacks.
You can lower your LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels by doing the following things:
Cutting Down on saturated fats in your diet can help – a good thing.
The American Heart Association(AHA) recommends an intake of no more than five to six percent of your daily calories from saturated fat. This percentage translates to thirteen grams a day based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
Saturated fat is present in meat, dairy products, and some plant-based oils like palm oil, coconut oil, and palm kernel oil.
To promote heart health, AHA strongly recommends swapping some saturated fats with healthier fats, like monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and unsaturated fats. They are present in olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, and fish.
Preferably, omega-3 fats, a type of unsaturated fats found in flaxseeds, walnuts, and fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, may also decrease blood clots.
Eating more whole grains can help – a good thing:
A diet that has whole grains may lower your risk of heart disease. In addition, recent research from Tufts University suggests that eating whole grains can help maintain a healthy waistline and reduce blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride. These parameters improve partly because of the feelings of fullness that whole grains provide.
Soluble fiber, a type of dietary fiber present in oats and barley, may also avert sudden spikes in blood sugar, helping better control blood sugar levels, particularly those living with diabetes.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans for 2020-2025 recommends eating at least three servings of whole grains per day, with one serving equivalent to a half cup of oatmeal, one slice of whole-grain bread, or a half cup of brown rice.
Eating more plant-based foods can help – a good thing.
Plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, and tofu provide many nutritional benefits. They contain fewer calories and lesser saturated fat but are higher in dietary fiber, potassium, and other healthy nutrients. Including plant-based foods as part of your daily diet may lower your risk for heart disease and other chronic diseases.
A plant-based diet can be different from vegetarian and vegan diets. The plant-based diet is more flexible, unlike the other two, in which you can still include animal proteins in small amounts.
More importantly, in the plant-based diet, also make sure to incorporate whole foods and non-processed foods.
To maximize health benefits from plant-based style eating, follow the USDA MyPlate guidelines by including half a plate with whole vegetables and fruits, whole grains with one-quarter of the plate, and plant-based proteins in the remaining quarter.
If you are new to a plant-based diet concept, look for opportunities to substitute meat with a plant-based protein recipe you already make. For example, in place of using ground beef to make chili, opt for beans. You can also replace processed foods with whole foods, such as eating the whole fruit instead of canned fruit packed in syrup.
Drinking alcohol excessively – Bad Thing
Your liver has to break down alcohol and transforms it into cholesterol and triglycerides. So when you consume too much, it tends to increase both cholesterol and triglyceride levels in your body.
If you drink regularly, limit your intake to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. One drink is equivalent to 1 ½ fluid ounces of spirits, like vodka, gin, scotch, or bourbon, 5 fluid ounces of wine, or twelve fluid ounces of regular beer.
Whereas moderate alcohol intake may provide some health benefits, it is best not to start if you do not drink.
Not exercising enough – Bad Thing
Regular exercise promotes a healthy heart. Especially, it stimulates the growth of coronary collateral blood vessels because the physical activity may increase the number of small blood vessels connecting to the major arteries to the heart. With the results, if one of these arteries gets blocked, these collateral blood vessels can provide an alternate route to supply oxygen and nutrients to the heart area that could otherwise suffer a heart attack due to restricted blood flow.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition, recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise a week, or a combination of activities of both intensities all through the week.
While moderate-intensity aerobic exercise includes brisk walking, biking, and gardening, vigorous aerobic activities involve making you sweat, such as running, jumping ropes, yard work that involves digging, and more.
Smoking or if you are around secondhand smoke – Bad Thing
The combination of carbon monoxide and nicotine from cigarette smoking can raise your risk for heart attack.
When you smoke cigarettes, you inhale carbon monoxide. This toxic gas decreases the amount of oxygen your red blood cells carry to your heart. It also causes cholesterol to get deposited in your arteries’ inner lining, leading to atherosclerosis.
On the other hand, nicotine can harden the walls of the arteries causing restriction of the blood flow. As time passes, blood flow restriction may lead to a heart attack.
Surprisingly, you will also be at risk for heart attacks if you are a non-smoker but exposed to secondhand smoke. Your risk of developing heart disease is 25 to 30 percent greater than those not exposed to it.
So, a plan to quit smoking and minimize your exposure to secondhand smoke could protect your heart.
Stress – Bad Thing
People usually underestimate the effects of stress on their hearts. Though stress itself may not directly trigger a heart attack, it may affect your heart health by inducing how you make your lifestyle choices.
For example, people undergoing long-term stress may choose less nutritious foods, overeat, consume more alcohol than the recommended amount, start smoking or smoking more frequently, and more.
All these behaviors affect your overall lipid profile and heart health. For a healthy heart, identifying the underlying causes for your stressor and managing them is necessary.
Some activities that can help you manage your stress include regular exercise, meditation, yoga, and plenty of sleep each night.
Whereas there are certain things you can’t change, such as your gender, age, and genetics, you can make lifestyle changes to save your heart and lower your chances of a heart attack. So, start making changes, one at a time, today! But don’t wait until it is too late.
About Author: Renu Bakshi, AKA Fitness Buffhq, is ISSA Certified Elite Trainer. He passed Personal Fitness Trainer Course, Nutrition Health Coach course & Specialist Exercise Therapy course from ISSA, the USA, obtaining + 97% marks. He shares his experience and knowledge about nutrition and effective workouts to get you in the best shape of your life, no matter how old you may be. The author says: “For me, age is just a number!”