September 29 is recognised the world over as World Heart Day. No one needs to be told how important their heart is, but many of us could do with some help looking after ours. Heart disease is a catch-all for a catalogue of health concerns and, according to a recent survey, cardiovascular disease (CVD) remains the number one cause of death in the UAE, accounting for over two-thirds of all deaths.
Risk of heart disease is dependent on several factors such as age, smoking habits, diabetes, weight and stress, family history and genetics. The good news is that even small lifestyle changes can lower your risk of heart disease by as much as 83 per cent. The key is to act now.
So, what can you do to build a healthy heart and avoid heart disease?
Don’t stress it
Stress itself is a risk factor in cardiovascular disease and it's one that disproportionately affects expatriate employees. We understand the pressures of living and working abroad, often in demanding roles. Then, there is the added challenge of settling families in a new culture and living without the support of a domestic network, such as friends and extended family.
Many expats find it hard to talk about anxiety, depression, stress and mental health, or simply don’t have anyone to support them.
Your insurance will most likely include an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). The programme provides a confidential counselling service from behavioural health experts around the world to help keep you healthy and happy while you’re living abroad. Find out if you have access to our EAP through your plan and get the support you need today.
Know your numbers
There are ways to calculate and monitor your risk of heart disease and it’s important to keep up-to-date with your health status.
One method is to use the American College of Cardiology’s ASCVD Risk Estimator Plus tool, which gives you a percentage likelihood of developing atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) in the next 10 years. The tool uses your age, sex and ethnicity as well as vital statistics such as your cholesterol level (HDL and LDL) and blood pressure. Most of us won’t know these latter statistics so it’s important to get a check-up with your primary doctor, who will also recommend you have blood tests at least every four to six years.
Optimise your intake
Diet is a key factor in maintaining a healthy heart. Studies consistently link high-quality, healthy food to a lower risk of coronary-artery disease.
Ignore the latest diet fad and focus on building a healthy and balanced diet that you will stick to. The key is to gradually remove bad things and replace them with good things to build healthier habits that you can sustain. Inject more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes and yoghurt into your meals. Remove or cut down food such as red and processed meats, refined grains, sweets and fried food.
Think about this when you make or choose your next meal — what would a healthier option be?
Making time to exercise can be hard when you have a job, family and other demands — let alone when you’re trying to do it all in a new country — but increasing your aerobic fitness is an essential part of building a healthy heart.
If you don’t have time to go to the gym or play a sport, try to fit brisk walking or desk exercises into your daily routine. Even these small lifestyle changes can help you to reach the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended 150 minutes of moderate cardio every week.
A balance of strength and cardio work is ideal and many time-poor individuals have found HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) a great way to workout. HIIT involves ‘micro workouts’ of as little as 10-minutes, to be done every day. Done over many weeks, the results can double your stamina, increase metabolism and burn fat — and there’s no equipment necessary!
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended 150 minutes of moderate cardio every week
The body makes its own cholesterol, but certain foods — those high in saturated or trans fats such as fatty cuts of meat and dairy products — allow additional cholesterol to build up in your arteries. This build up prevents blood flow around the body and, if it isn’t addressed, can result in heart attack.
Without having a blood test, many people are unaware that their cholesterol levels are too high. As such it is important to find out what your cholesterol numbers are by visiting your primary doctor.
If, after assessing you, your doctor discovers that you are at high risk of cardiovascular disease or have high cholesterol, they may prescribe you statin ― a drug that helps to lower cholesterol in the blood.
Build your support network
Mental health is an often-overlooked factor in heart health. However, it can impact the body directly — blood pressure, cholesterol — as well as indirectly by driving unhealthy behaviours such as drugs, drink, smoking and other psychological crutches that people rely on to get through a difficult or vulnerable time.
It’s important to manage your mental health to avoid the impact on the heart, and the support of friends and/or family is essential. This is particularly pertinent for expats, many of whom move for demanding jobs on their own — although even relocating with a family can bring its own set of stresses and pressures.
This makes it essential to build and maintain a support network while living away from home and there are many ways to do it. The easiest thing is often staying in touch with family at home by booking in set times for when you will call or chat with them.
Another good approach is to proactively build relationships with your work colleagues. Many international workplaces have a ‘buddy’ system to support new arrivals and facilitates work social events. Particularly in the UAE we are blessed that we have vibrant expat communities who can offer support and they’re often easy to find and connect with online.
There is a famous Chinese proverb that says, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’ Making small everyday changes — whether it’s reducing your stress levels, making health food choices, exercising regularly, going for regular health checks, or taking care of your mental health ― will go a long way to strengthen your heart health and avoid heart disease.
References available on request.