Healthy Heart Guide

The human heart can be compared to the engine of a car—both are power units that keep bodies moving. Your heart works as a pump that pushes blood to the organs, tissues, and cells of your body. The blood pumped by the heart delivers oxygen and nutrients to every cell and removes the carbon dioxide and waste products made by those cells. But if blood flow to the heart is slowed or stopped or the heart beats irregularly, your life may be in danger. Like your car engine, how you treat your heart will determine how long and how well it will continue to work for you.

Heart disease is any disease that affects the heart or blood vessels. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in India for both men and women. Heart disease is responsible for more deaths in India than cancer, AIDS, and accidents. New tests and treatment methods have reduced the number of deaths from heart disease, but they do not affect the number of people who still get heart disease. Heart disease is more frequent in younger age group in India as compared to the western population.

Certain factors play an important role in a person's chances of developing heart disease. These are called risk factors. Some risk factors can be controlled or changed while others cannot.

Non modifiable risk factors are gender, age, and genetics (hereditary). There are many lifestyle risk factors which can be changed to prevent or postpone heart disease. Medical studies show that eating a diet low in fat, salt, and cholesterol; not using any type of tobacco; exercising at least three times a week; maintaining ideal weight; decreasing blood pressure; and controlling diabetes can reduce the risk of heart disease.

Exercise—or a lack of it—plays a large role in our health. Research has shown that we need to exercise aerobically (such as brisk walking, jogging, or cycling) at least three times a week for 30 minutes to condition our hearts.

Making only a few sensible changes in the diet can also help reduce the risk of heart disease. Heart-healthy habits include limiting your salt intake to no more than a teaspoon (6 grams) a day. (If you have high blood pressure, your doctor may suggest that you have even less.)

Your diet should consist primarily of fruits, vegetables, grain products, lean meats, and fish. Try to decrease your level of fat (especially saturated fat) and cholesterol (fatty red meats, whole milk, whole milk cheeses, eggs, cream-based dishes, and rich desserts).

Drinking alcohol also affects your heart. Medical research shows that a moderate amount of alcohol each day protects against heart disease and heart attacks. Experts say that moderate intake is an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. But drinking more than a moderate amount of alcohol can cause heart-related problems such as high blood pressure, stroke, irregular heartbeats, and cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle). It is not recommended that nondrinkers start using alcohol or that drinkers increase the amount that they drink.

Stress is another factor that can affect your heart. People with heart disease often say they have heart pain during emotionally stressful situations. Heart attacks are also more likely to happen during times of stress, because when we feel stressed, our hearts race and our blood pressure rises, increasing the heart's need for oxygen. Stress can also injure the arteries because of the extra hormones and the increased blood flow during the stress response. As the arterial walls begin to heal, they thicken, making them prone to plaque buildup, which narrows the artery. Researchers are not saying that stress causes heart disease, but they do believe it can make heart conditions worse.