The heart is an incredible organ that beats 1,00,000 times a day and 2.5 billion times in an average lifetime. Rest for the organ — no beat for more than a few minutes — means the end of life. It is imperative therefore that we make it function as well as possible. The human heart can be replaced but that is a very cumbersome, expensive, painful and impractical proposition.
World Heart Day, which is today, is an opportunity for everyone to resolve to take better care of themselves – and the community, nation, and humanity at large. The theme for this year is “Cardiovascular Health for Everyone”.
Non-communicable diseases — a large number of which are cardiovascular diseases (CVD) — are responsible for over 75 per cent of deaths in low- to middle-income countries. Access to treatment is a major issue. Early recognition of events like a heart attack and stroke are also important steps. The risk factors related to CVD are well known — tobacco use, excess weight, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol levels in the blood, lack of exercise, poor intake of fruits and vegetables and stress.
These risk factors explain at least 90 per cent of heart attacks in all geographies and ethnic groups. The risk to people with more than one of these risk factors is several times higher. Regular check-ups and taking measures, if any, to mitigate these risk factors are essential preventive strategies. Preventive health check-ups, available in many medical centres, have not been used adequately. As a result, the first time a person becomes aware of their importance is after a vascular event like a heart attack or a stroke.
The number of deaths in India due to cardiovascular diseases in 2020 was around 4.75 million. In recent times, there has been an alarming number of deaths due to heart diseases among young people. One in five heart attack patients in India is less than 40 years of age. This is a very concerning fact and needs action from all of us — besides healthcare authorities and medical professionals, voluntary bodies, panchayats, the media and NGOs need to be roped in for this endeavour.
Air pollution is responsible for 25 per cent of CVD deaths worldwide. An estimated seven million lives are lost every year because of this menace. Studies have shown that air pollution can trigger heart attacks, heart rhythm abnormalities, and paralytic strokes. Very small and minute particles in the air are the chief culprits. These are found in smoke, dust, haze and exhaust emanating from factory outlets and vehicles. They contain toxins like nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone and second-hand cigarette smoke. Pollution in the country’s metros has been defying a solution for more than a decade now.
Although exercise is an important component of preventing CVD, it should be avoided in very polluted environments. Plan activities when pollution levels are lower, like in early mornings, in areas surrounded by green trees. When particle levels are high with haze, smog etc, delay the activities until the air is cleaner or move to activities indoors. In addition, reduce the level of activities if the air is not clean. Go for a walk instead of a jog. Take it easier so that the number of pollutants which you breathe is reduced.
The larger solution is to have clean air legislation, reduce the number of vehicles on roads, and replace travelling by car with walking or cycling. Several such measures are in place in many countries and we need to find the right examples to emulate.
Physiological stress is known to double the risk of a heart attack. Stress can be caused by a physical or emotional change or a change in your environment that requires you to adjust or respond. Things that make you feel stressed are called “stressors”. These can be minor hassles, major lifestyle changes, or a combination of both.
Some ways to cope with these issues are: Eating and drinking sensibly, avoiding alcohol, asserting yourself, stopping smoking, regular aerobic exercise and relaxation every day and having adequate sleep. It is also important to take up assignments which you can do and leave behind what is beyond your control. Spending an hour with yourself and doing any activity which relaxes you is enough to ward off the evils of stress to a great extent.
“A healthy heart for the community” is amongst the themes of this year’s Heart Day. It means that the ties of the individual with the community are critical for preventing heart diseases — this can range from putting in place healthcare facilities and reducing pollution to creating awareness about healthy living and evolving conditions that ensure wellness to devoting time for personal care with yoga, meditation and exercise.
The writer is Founder Director, Gauri Kaul Foundation