Heart health matters to everyone

(Edmonton) Think you’re too young to care about keeping your heart healthy? A University of Alberta researcher says it’s never too soon. 

“Heart disease and heart health are relevant to everyone,” says Alex Clark, professor and associate dean of research in the U of A’s Faculty of Nursing. The chronic heart problems that often cause heart attacks and heart-related chest pain and illnesses in later life have their roots in behaviour established over a lifetime—even in our teenage years.

“We tend to think we will never get old and that the effects of smoking, high cholesterol or a lack of physical activity on the heart will never catch up with us,” notes Clark. Unfortunately, although more Canadians are living longer, heart disease is still Canada’s largest cause of premature death and disability for both men and women, who are actually at the same risk of heart disease over their lifetime.

One of the most interesting parts of Clark’s research is his work identifying particular types of healthy behaviour that can delay or even prevent heart disease. “These benefits can happen whether we are older or younger, male or female, and irrespective of race, income or where we live,” he explains. “And there can be noticeable improvements almost right away.”

Research shows that the effects of exercise and weight reduction on blood pressure happen in days and weeks—not months. In fact, the hearts of people well into their nineties will benefit from physical activity after only about half a dozen periods of sustained exercise. Even after people have had heart attacks, if they stop smoking, their heart disease risk can become similar to that of comparable non-smokers in two to three years. “In this way, the prevention of heart disease is everyone’s business too,” adds Clark, “and it is never too early or too late to start making heart healthy choices.”

Clark acknowledges that changing behaviour isn’t simple. “The reality is, we often know what we should do to have healthier hearts, but we don’t make that healthier choice. When we’re tired, the television can be more attractive than the treadmill, the fries more pleasing than the fruit, and the talk trumps the walk.”

So what can we do to have a healthier heart? A lot of what helps increase healthier choices is not New Year’s resolutions or expensive equipment, but small changes to numerous areas of our daily lives. “While it’s great that some people run marathons, do triathlons and go to boot camp, a lot of us don’t have the time or inclination to do this,” Clark says. But he points out that we can all find time to do something if we make it a priority and think about good ways to better integrate heart health into our routines.

There are many simple and easy tricks you can do to move more every day, he explains. “Choosing the stairs over the elevator is a great start. When the weather is good, get off the bus one stop early or park your car far away from the store entrance—where it is actually easier to park!”

Clark also says healthier choices can be as beneficial for the brain as for the heart. “Many of us often feel down, busy or stressed, but healthier choices also have significant benefits for our mental health and well-being.”

Clark’s research, conducted with graduate student Todd McClure, has revealed that heart-healthy behaviour reduces anxiety and improves psychological well-being. Anxiety and depression are also risk factors for heart disease, so reducing these factors not only makes us feel better mentally, but also improves heart health.

“Both the head and the heart tell us that these behaviours are good for us, so whatever the weather, however old or young we are, the time to start making heart healthier choices is today.”

Five tips for a healthy heart

  • Take a brisk walk outside or inside most days—shopping malls are perfect in winter.
  • Eat more raw fruit and vegetables.
  • Eat less fatty and very sweet foods by substituting in healthier equivalents, like choosing chocolate mousse over chocolate.
  • Taste your food before adding salt.
  • Substitute fresh or dry herbs for salt in your cooking.