Four secrets to turning back the clock on your ticker
VINOD WAS 11, SITTING AT THE kitchen table with his dad and two sisters, when Dad’s eyes suddenly rolled back in his head. He slumped and fell clean off his chair, hitting the cold tile floor with a thud. The siblings jumped up, shrieking, and dialled 108. Dad became alright before the paramedics arrived, and he told the kids not to worry. “It was nothing,” he said, and then made them swear not to tell Mom.
Flash forward 12 years, Vinod’s dad, 54, is walking around a hospital room with two stents and a pacemaker in his chest, the calling cards of his heart attack. If he (and his doctor) had known back then what we know now, his heart muscle might not have suffered irreparable damage. Passing out is a sign of arrhythmia, a treatable condition that causes heart attacks, strokes, even death.
Over the past few years, cardiologists have begun aggressively trying to prevent heart disease in at-risk men, rather than treating them only after their blood pumps have broken down. “My patients who follow a preventive treatment programme almost always live free of heart attacks,” says Dr. Atul Mathur, director of cardiology. Escorts Heart Institute, New Delhi. To help you spot subtle risk factors and correct them before they bury you, we compiled this list of things cardiologists wish you knew.
YOUR HEART’S MORTAL ENEMY IS OFTEN INVISIBLE TO DOCTORS
“I was taught in medical school that when a heart attack happens, vessels close down gradually, like pipes filling up with sludge,” says Dr Mathur. “We now know that blockages occur suddenly, from soft-plaque ruptures, which often go undetected by standard cholesterol tests and exercise stress tests.” The soft plaques resemble pimples in the arterial walls, except instead of pus, they’re filled with cholesterol.
Why it’s so dangerous When those pimples pop, a small blood clot forms to heal the injury, followed by scar tissue and tiny calcifications along the arterial wall. By then, you’re incubating an attack, which strikes when an explosion of one of the pustules creates a clot big enough to block an artery.
How to ID the problem If you have a family history of heart disease, schedule a 64-slice CT scan. It’s the only test that snaps pictures of the heart quickly enough to reveal minute calcifications in the coronary arteries. Just make sure the scanner has ECG dose modulation, the latest radiation-limiting technology. If trouble’s spotted, you may need statins.
How to defend yourself Toss pecans onto your salad or into your oatmeal. The nuts lower levels of lipid oxidation (the process that turns cholesterol into plaque) by seven per cent, enough to help ward off arterial damage. Pecans are rich in gamma-tocopherol, a form of vitamin E that isn’t in supplements. Even a handful a day can help.
AN UNTRAINED HEART WON’T REACH THE FINISH LINE
Not every heart test needs to take place in a path lab. In a 23 – year study of 6,000 men in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers revealed that the greatest predictor of death from heart attack was the ability of a man’s heart rate to adapt during and after a workout. The faster your heart rate goes down after exercise, the healthier you are. Says British singer Jay Sean, Superstar Advice on How To Be A Better Man: “Cardio, especially running, has helped my stamina for my stage performances. Sometimes I run and sing at the same time to see if I can still sing well while short of breath.”
Why it’s so dangerous Those men whose heart rates didn’t drop by at least 25 beats per minute (bpm) within one minute of finishing an intense workout were more likely to suffer a fatal heart attack than those whose heart rates dropped efficiently. The reason? How your heart adapts to exercise is a good indication of how well it will respond to the extreme stress produced before and during an actual infarction.
How to ID the problem Complete 10 minutes of sprints, check your heart rate, and then check it again one minute later.
How to defend yourself: Improve your heart-rate variability by applying the principles of interval training to your lifting regimen. Wear a heart-rate monitor and don’t end your first set until the monitor reads 1600/bpm. Then wait till it drops below 130 to begin the next set.
CARBOHYDRATES, NOT FAT, ARE THE REAL HEARTBREAKERS
The more carbohydrates you consume, the higher your blood sugar and, in turn, your levels of insulin, a hormone that lets you use sugar as energy. But excess insulin may also increase your risk of heart disease, according to a review in Preventive Medicine. “The inflammatory process leading to hardening of the arteries is mediated through insulin,” says Dr Mathur. Translation: high levels of insulin boost your body’s production of stress hormones, which send BP skyrocketing. That increased pressure damages the arterial wall, making it easier for cholesterol to slip inside.
Why it’s so dangerous Insulin may not act alone. It’s theorised that the excess carbs that cause insulin to increase to an unhealthy level are turned into triglycerides in your liver. And the more triglycerides you have, the more Lp(a) – the lethally small cholesterol – you’re likely to have.
How to ID the problem For every one percent increase in haemoglobin A1c(HbA1c), an indicator of long-term blood sugar levels, patients experienced a 14 percent increase in heart-disease risk.
How to defend yourself Pour yourself a cabernet. According to a study in the Annals of Epidemiology, small amounts of alcohol may help control your blood sugar, and, by extension, your insulin.
YOUR HEART MIGHT BE MISFIRING
One in four men will develop an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, by the time they reach 4. Yet they often don’t experience obvious symptoms until they’re clutching their chest during a cardiac arrest or they suffer a stroke.
Why it’s so dangerous “When an arrhythmia occurs, the heart stops listening to the SA node, turning its attention to other electrical signals,” says Dr Mathur. One form of arrhythmia, called atrial fibrillation, or AFib, can occur even in young athletic men. “It’s like there are 300 voices inside the heart telling it what to do,” says Dr Mathur. Chaotic heartbeats cause the blood to swirl and eddy instead of flowing smoothly through the ventricles, and clots form as a result.
How to ID the problem One telltale sign of an arrhythmia is a dramatic decline in endurance. If your regular cardio workout is suddenly a lot more exhausting, ask your doctor for an EKG. If that comes up clear, request a Holter monitor. Passing out may also be a sign of serious heart rhythm trouble.How to defend yourself One of the most common causes of arrhythmia is high blood pressure, so keep yours under 120/80 millimetres of mercury. A massage may provide pleasurable stress relief.