It is a common misconception that heart disease only affects the elderly. This belief couldn’t be more wrong – coronary artery disease does affect people in their twenties.
Young and middle-aged individuals can, and often do, suffer from heart problems – 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. How you live now affects your risk for cardiovascular disease later in life.
While comfort breakfasts like nasi lemak and fried noodles may seem permissible at this stage, plaque can start accumulating within the body and eventually lead to clogged arteries, causing cardiovascular complications.
What are other myths about heart disease? Dr. Derek Yong, Medical Director at Restore Heart Centre (Mount Alvernia Hospital Medical Centre) and Ms Susan Kevork, Nestle Nutrition Network Zone Lead AOA, debunk common myths.
1. Heart disease is a men’s disease.
Many people mistakenly believe that heart disease is “for men” and breast cancer is “for women”.
The reality is that cardiovascular disease singularly causes the most number of female deaths not only in Singapore, but also internationally. In fact, it is more fatal than all cancers combined – including breast cancer – and affects more women than men.
Although the incidence of heart attack is lower in women than men, this risk drastically increases after menopause. Women with coronary heart disease are on average about 10 years older than men at the time of diagnosis – so may feel less concerned about the condition while they’re younger.
Often, women also may not recognise their symptoms as indicators of heart disease and may brush aside their symptoms, despite this being dangerous to their health and safety.
2. All cholesterol is bad.
LDL-C is known as “bad” cholesterol, because high levels of it can lead to plaque buildup in your arteries and result in heart disease and stroke. Foods that are high in saturated and trans fats can raise blood cholesterol and are commonly found in fried fast foods, pies and pastries, fries, doughnuts and fatty meats.
On the other hand, HDL cholesterol absorbs “bad” cholesterol and carries it back to the liver, which flushes it from the body. HDL is known as “good” cholesterol, given its potential to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Foods that can help raise HDL cholesterol are mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats which are found in oils like olive, rice bran or sunflower oils and foods like avocado, nuts, seeds and fish.
To help reduce LDL cholesterol, eating foods with plant sterols and beta-glucans can block a percentage of the bad cholesterol from entering the bloodstream. Eating a diet high in fibre, especially soluble fibre, can also speed up the removal of cholesterol through the bowel.
Soluble fibre is found in foods such as oats, oat bran, barley bran, dried beans, lentils, fruit and vegetables.
3. If I reduce my salt intake, my sodium intake is regulated.
The average Singaporean consumes around 9g of salt per day, according to the Singapore Health Promotion Board, which far exceeds the recommended amount advised by health experts of 5g.
Even if you cut down on the amount of salt or soy sauce you add to your food, salt/sodium is hidden in condiments, canned foods, deli meats and restaurant food.
This unknowingly elevates your blood pressure, in turn increasing your risk of heart disease.
Stay aware and check nutrition labels on the supermarket foods you purchase, while continuing to make efforts to reduce your salt intake.
A 2013 study from Harvard Medical School and other institutions predicted that even gradually reducing sodium intake by four per cent per year, over 10 years, could save up to half a million lives.
4. I am doomed to suffer from heart disease if it runs in my family.
Traditionally, certain genetic markers have been associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease.
However, their overall effect on risk beyond traditional risk factors has not been established, and they have not conclusively proven to improve on the prediction of coronary heart disease risk.
At this stage, genetics are not used definitively in determining overall cardiovascular risk, so there is no large cause for alarm even if you have a family history of heart disease.
Having said that, it is important to take precautionary steps as far as possible. To reduce risk, opt for heart-healthy nutrition.
In Singapore, we often consume meals that contain excessive sodium, sugars and saturated fats, leading to increased risk of hypertension, diabetes and hypercholesterolemia – all important indicators of heart disease that can cause coronary blockages.
Choose foods that consist of wholegrains such as brown rice and oats, as well as plant sterols and beta-glucans, such as Nestle Omega Plus Milk with Oats. You can look out for food that contain these ingredients for breakfast.
Switch out meals that are high in oil for those containing leafy greens, beans, nuts, lean poultry and fish.
5. If I was in any danger of having high blood pressure or a heart attack, I would have felt the signs already.
High blood pressure is often dubbed a “silent killer” because you don’t usually know you have it, which is why annual health checks are so important.
Most people recognise heart trouble through its obvious symptoms – 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 – affected people often do not realise that they need to seek emergency care.
6. There is no need for me to undergo any heart screenings until a problem arises.
To reduce the risk having of heart disease, it is important to take constant note of your heart health before danger strikes. Whilst the symptoms of heart disease can be managed and alleviated after proper treatment, there is no single cure for the condition.
Take steps to prevent its occurrence by adopting a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle, including exercise for at least 20-30 minutes every day.
At least annually, you should undergo a full medical checkup that includes assessment of cardiovascular risk factors such as diabetes mellitus, hyperlipidemia and hypertension.
A focused history and physical examination by a doctor, along with an estimate of the short- and long-term risk of heart disease, should also be included in annual heart screenings.
If you are suffering from any cardiac risk factors – diabetes, hypertension and hyperlipidemia – seek immediate guidance on appropriate management.
It is also advisable to go for cardiac screening before embarking on a new exercise programme.