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Have a heart?

Starting when we’re in the womb, the heart pumps oxygen-rich blood throughout our bodies. It beats 100,000 times a day throughout our lives – even when we abuse it and make its job a lot more difficult.

Canadian heart health is a “good news, bad news” story, according to Dr. Beth Abramson, a Toronto cardiologist and spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. While treatment and diagnosis have improved over the past 20 years, prevention is seriously lacking.

“More than 300,000 Canadians are Healthy Living with heart disease and a further 50,000 are Healthy Living with the effects of stroke,” Abramson says. She attributes these numbers to rising epidemics of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Annual Report on Canadians’ Health says today’s 60-year-olds are in worst shape than today’s seniors. Baby Boomers are the first generation ever to be less healthy than previous generations.

“We’re facing an explosion of heart disease and stroke if we don’t start making some lifestyle changes,” Abramson says.

Rather than rely on doctors to fix the damage, Canadians need to prevent heart disease by taking better care of their own health.

Caring for your most vital organ

Know your risk factors. If a close relative has died of heart disease, or if you smoke, your risk is double. Know and control your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. If you have Type II diabetes, you can control that too.

Be smoke free. Smoking is the single most preventable health hazard. It contributes to the buildup of plaque in the arteries and increases the risk of blood clots. It can also reduce oxygen in the blood, increase blood pressure and make the heart work harder.

Be physically active. If you’re over 18, most days you need either 20-30 minutes of vigorous exercise – the kind that makes you breathe hard and work up a sweat – or up to 60 minutes of medium to low exertion exercise such as walking. Choose activities you enjoy, and build in some variety to keep it interesting and use different muscles.

Eat a healthy diet. Canada’s Food Guide recommends at least five servings of vegetables and fruits per day. Choose lean meat, fish, poultry and meat alternatives (such as beans) and lower fat dairy products. Avoid fried or fatty foods, especially foods high in trans fats and sodium.

Maintain a healthy Healthy Body weight. Besides regular exercise and healthy food choices, another important way to keep the weight down is to eat smaller portions. Eating slowly is an effective way to do this, and allows time to savour tasty food. Say no to “supersizing,” and skip second helpings.

Watch what you drink, too. The Healthy Body needs water – not caffeine, alcohol or excessive sugar.

Reduce stress. Try a positive coping mechanism under stressful situations. Taking a moment to breathe deeply and think calmly, for example, is much healthier than getting physically and emotionally worked up in a fit of anger, frustration or panic.

Visit your doctor regularly. Don’t forget to follow up on his or her advice on risk reduction.
Adopting these small but important health habits can make a major difference in a person’s health, quality of life, and longevity. The medical community can only do so much to treat the damage Canadians are causing to their own bodies.

“For some people, making lifestyle changes can be harder than taking a pill,” says Abramson, “but it’s more important for most of us.”


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