World Heart Day: How to prevent heart ailments

heart health
Significant lifestyle changes can keep heart healthy. Photo Credit: Brian A Jackson/

Mild chest pain would make most people panic as they think that they have had a major heart attack. However, not many people pay heed to their body or take precautions to prevent the dangerous stages of heart disease. People are too lazy to treat the symptoms of heart disease or make significant lifestyle changes to stay healthy. Dr. Harikrishnan, Professor of Cardiology at Thiruvananthapuram Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute of Medical Sciences says that awareness about heart health should be inculcated from childhood onwards. In order to stay away from heart diseases, one should actually try to keep away the symptoms. Dr. Harikrishnan says that heart health should be included as a subject in the secondary school and college curricula to create more awareness. As we celebrate World Heart Day, Dr. Harikrishnan speaks to Onmanoramaa about the various ways in which one could take care of their heart.

The theme for this year’s World Heart Day is ‘Cardiovascular Health for Everyone’. Is it possible to execute this message effectively? What are the challenges?

The idea of promoting the importance of heart health should begin with children. We usually run an executive check-up to find out whether a patient has heart disease. However, a curriculum that teaches the significance of good and healthy heart habits should be introduced at secondary school and college levels. Diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity are some of the diseases that could lead to severe heart diseases. We can prevent heart diseases by effectively preventing these lifestyle diseases. If you are diagnosed with these, then do not hesitate to begin treatment or medication. It is not enough that we diagnose them at an early stage. The Kerala government has begun a screening program to detect lifestyle diseases.

We should note at what age we are diagnosed with risk factors like high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes. Most importantly, we should try to prevent these diseases. Usually, people in their 20s and 30s get diagnosed with these diseases due to childhood obesity and childhood inactivity. In order to prevent that, children could be encouraged to do exercise and follow healthy eating habits. Moreover, it should be included in the curriculum too. They should realise the importance of avoiding junk food and reducing screen time. Besides, the children should be encouraged to eat healthy food items like fruits and vegetables. Heart disease prevention would be effective if these are followed from a young age itself.

Unlike earlier, youngsters are falling prey to heart diseases these days?

In India, heart diseases are detected at least a decade before it is supposed to happen. Compared to Western people, heart diseases and heart failure are detected at least ten years early among Indians. It could be because we have a relatively younger population. Here, even diabetes is detected at a young age. If you take the population who are above 50 years, then half of them are diabetic patients. Diabetic patients are likely to suffer from heart disease within ten years of getting diagnosed. Besides, people are getting too stressed. Lack of exercise too is another reason. Nowadays, people hardly walk. We don’t have proper facilities to do exercise in a safe environment. It is extremely difficult to walk on our roads. Besides, our roads are not designed to accommodate pedestrians. Dust, air pollution and stray dog attacks too keep away people from walking.

Not eating good and healthy food is the main reason. Ordering junk food online is easier than making a healthy salad. Moreover, our eating habits have changed drastically. In cities, people eat outside at least once a week. Even though smoking has been reduced, the use of other hard-core drugs has gone up. Two youngsters who are between 21 and 24 were rushed to the hospital recently after they suffered heart attacks due to drug abuse. Hypertension and diabetes have become really common. Work-related stress and tension due to family problems increase the risk of heart disease.

Does COVID-19 play a major role in increasing the number of heart patients?

You cannot say that the number of heart patients has gone up due to COVID-19 because there is no proper data about COVID-19 patients. Lots of people had stayed home or didn’t get tested. So, we do have the correct numbers. It is true that most people in Kerala got COVID-19. But, it is difficult to do a study about whether COVID-19 has caused heart diseases.

After a viral infection, your heart could fail as the heart muscles get destroyed due to swelling. Even before COVID-19, heart failures could have happened due to other viral infections. This has happened due to COVID-19 and in some rare cases due to vaccines too.

What are the points to keep in mind to ensure a healthy heart?

As I have told earlier, keeping away the detectors is the major step in preventing heart diseases. Try to keep a check on diabetes and high blood pressure; quitting smoking too would help. Exercising, avoiding junk food and including lots of fruits and vegetables in the regular menu are some of the ways. You could stay away from heart diseases to a certain extent by keeping away stress.

Make sure to balance your body weight in proportion to your height. Reducing obesity would lower the chance of diabetes. Some studies have shown that the blood sugar in diabetic patients has dropped to healthy levels by reducing obesity. Moreover, try avoiding red meat.

Heart diseases could be reduced by choosing a family that has a history of heart-related problems. The heart patients and the high-risk people in that family could be targeted separately to prevent the disease. Diabetic patients should take proper medication. They should be encouraged to exercise and follow a healthy diet. These are some of the ways in which heart diseases could be tamed.

Finding out whether the patient had been suffering from diabetes for a long time and the duration when it had gone up to uncontrollable levels are significant in prescribing treatment. Getting diagnosed with a disease at the age of 70 may not affect the productivity of a person. However, if it happens just after turning 40 may severely affect the person, his family and society too. So, it is important to prevent the symptoms that could lead to severe heart disease.

If your parents had been diagnosed with diabetes when they were below forty, then you should be careful too. Do not forget to exercise regularly and maintain healthy body weight. Besides, testing diabetes at right intervals is important. A test called HbA1C could reveal whether you are at risk of getting diabetes. If you are, then you could start taking medicines and delay the disease. It would really help if you could delay it even by five years. Reducing stress to keep away high blood pressure, doing yoga and listening to music are some of the ways to be relaxed. If you are someone who sits and works for long hours in the office, standing up and stretching your body every half an hour is some of the practical ways in which you could stay healthy.

The number of young people who suddenly collapse and have attacks while exercising has gone up lately?

It is something that happens rarely. Do not stop exercising just because one person suffered from heart failure like that. However, those who have a family history of heart diseases or if your parents or siblings have had heart attacks when they were below sixty, should seek the expert opinion of a doctor before exercising. But, it is safe for everyone to do regular exercise.

If you feel uneasy while exercising, then stop immediately. If you feel chest pains, nausea or shortness of breath while exercising then go to the nearby hospital as soon as possible. In case it is the first stage of a heart attack, then the person could be saved.

When many celebrities collapsed, they were rushed to the hospital without giving them a cardiac massage. Usually, people gather around a person and merely stare when he/she collapses. But, if you could give them CPR, then you could probably save their life. The police personnel and health workers should be trained to give CPR; even the children could be trained. It is in fact easier to learn how to do a CPR. If a person collapses, do not make them sit up. Check the pulse and if there is no pulse, then immediately start cardiac massaging. You could just press 100 times on the chest. If 90 people collapse, cardiac massaging could save at least 10% of them.

How could you prevent the symptoms of a heart attack?

The most common symptom is chest pain. Even though the heart is positioned towards the left side of the chest, you feel the pain in the centre. The pain that begins in the centre moves to the left shoulder, left hand, chin and neck is a major symptom. Some people might experience nausea or shortness of breath. Meanwhile, some others won’t feel any pain but they may feel uneasiness. In some rare cases, people might vomit. Feeling heaviness above the chest or in the centre too is a symptom.

A silent heart attack may happen in 10% of people. It mostly happens in diabetic patients. Sudden death happens as there is variation in the heartbeats. It must be noted that 90% of deaths happen like this. Ischemia or abnormal heart beats happen when the blood flow to the heart gets reduced. Proper compressions wouldn’t happen then. The heartbeats would get fainter. The patient becomes unconscious as the heart does not pump enough blood. If this continues for three minutes, then it would lead to the death of the patient. In such situations, shocking the heart is the only way to revive it. The patient should be rushed to the nearby hospital that has good facilities, as soon as possible. There are around 140 cath labs in Kerala that could do angioplasty. As most people have health insurance cards these days, there is no need to worry about expenses. 

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