Health x Wellness

Myths about heart disease and steps to reduce the risk

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According to the Singapore Heart Foundation, nearly 1 in 3 deaths in Singapore (29.5% of all deaths in 2016) was because of cardiovascular diseases. These diseases include heart disease and stroke. Risk factors include smoking, lack of exercise, obesity and suffering from conditions such as diabetes and high blood cholesterol.

We spoke with Dr. Derek Yong, Medical Director at Restore Heart Centre, Mount Alvernia Hospital Media Centre and Susan Kevork, Nestle’s regional nutritionist about insights on the top myths around heart disease and steps to reduce the risk of heart disease. 

The Active Age (AA): What are some of the top misconceptions re: heart disease?

Dr. Derek Yong (DY): Many people often have the following misconceptions – that they are too young to worry about heart disease; that heart disease is a men’s issue;  that they would feel the symptoms if they have high blood pressure, coronary artery blockages or even a heart attack; and that there is no need for them to undergo any cardiovascular screenings until a problem arises.

These are all myths that should be addressed immediately so that the public is able to take steps towards protecting their hearts.

AA: Why do you think these misconceptions exist?

DY: Younger individuals generally believe that heart disease only affects the older population, and think that being young, they are free from cardiovascular diseases. In reality, coronary artery disease does affect people in their twenties, especially now that obesity, type II diabetes, hypertension and other risk factors are becoming more common at a younger age than ever before. These risk factors significantly increase the chances of heart disease, and how you live now affects your risk of cardiovascular disease later in life.

Many people also mistakenly believe that heart disease is “for men” and breast cancer is “for women”. In fact, both in Singapore and overseas, cardiovascular disease singularly causes the most number of female deaths and affects more women than men. It is even more fatal than all cancers combined, including breast cancer.

Women with coronary heart disease are usually about 10 years older than men at the time of diagnosis, so may not feel as concerned about the issue while they’re in their youth. Their risk, however, drastically increases after menopause.

People may also get a false sense of security that there is no need for them to undergo heart screenings if they are currently not experiencing any heart disease symptoms. This couldn’t be further from the truth. High blood pressure is often dubbed a “silent killer”, as you may not always be aware of your condition. Heart trouble has been linked to obvious symptoms like pain in the chest, shortness of breath and bouts of cold sweat. However, a heart attack may not always manifest in the same way, and sometimes reveals no symptoms at all. This is called a silent heart attack. To ensure you stay safe, it is pertinent to go for regular heart screenings.

AA: What can we do to confront and tackle these misconceptions from a family and friends perspective?

DY:  To raise awareness about heart health, it is important to filter out misinformation and understand the urgency of protecting one’s heart. Share with family and friends the knowledge that heart disease can, and often does, affect women and young people as well. It is pertinent they take immediate steps to keep their heart healthy, such as by following the below tips.

AA: What are some of the ways that we can look to prevent or delay the onset of heart disease? In your opinion, how should younger adults, over 35YO, look to reduce their risk of getting heart disease?

Susan Kevork (SK): Diet is so important – even starting from a young age. While “cheat days” and “comfort foods” that are heavy in cholesterol and saturated fats can seem acceptable at an earlier stage of life, plaque can accumulate within the body and eventually lead to clogged arteries, causing cardiovascular complications.

To prevent or delay the onset of heart disease, you can start by consuming heart-friendly meals. The average Singaporean consumes around 9g of salt per day, which far exceeds the recommended amount advised by health experts of 5g. Salt hidden in condiments, canned foods and restaurant dishes can silently increase your blood pressure, raising your chances of heart disease. To help protect your heart, switch out oily meals for those containing leafy greens, beans, nuts, lean poultry and fish.

DY: Apart from proper nutrition and exercise, it is also important to take constant note of your heart health before it is too late. While you can treat heart disease, there is no single cure for the condition. Ensure that you go for a full medical checkup at least annually, and assess cardiovascular risk factors like diabetes mellitus, hyperlipidemia and hypertension. Seek immediate guidance if you are suffering from any cardiac risk factors like the above. It is also recommended to go for cardiac screening before starting a new exercise programme.

AA: Can nutrition really help with preventing or managing heart disease in a significant manner?

SK: A 2013 study from Harvard Medical School and other institutions predicted that even gradually reducing sodium intake by four percent per year, over 10 years, could save up to half a million lives.

Good nutrition helps to balance the good and bad cholesterol in your blood. We should aim to keep our overall fat intake to about 30% of our energy intake and actively reduce the saturated fats in our diet. This is because saturated fats can increase the LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in our blood. Some examples of saturated fats are coconut oil, butter and ghee – unfortunately, many foods we eat in Singapore, like fried carrot cake and Nasi Lemak, are particularly high in this fat.

Proper nutrition, when made a habit, helps to insure you against heart disease in the future. When you consume a hearty breakfast in the morning, you are effectively breaking the fast from the night and setting the tone for the rest of the day. If you skip breakfast, you may grab something less healthy at lunch to fulfil your hunger and restore your energy levels.

Choose breakfast foods that consist of wholegrains such as oats, as well as plant sterols (which have been shown to lower blood cholesterol; high blood cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease) and beta-glucans, such as Nestlé Omega Plus Milk with Oats. Consume plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, choose low-fat cooking methods for fish, lean meat and chicken and look out for reduced or non-fat dairy foods. Always check nutrition labels at supermarkets, and if you choose to eat out, look out for the Healthier Choice logo at the food stall.



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