On the occasion of World Heart Day (September 30), here are some heartfelt home truths that have the potential to save a life

In 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported 17.3 million deaths worldwide due to cardiovascular diseases, accounting for almost 30% of all global deaths! Despite the fact that this loss of life could have been greatly prevented, the figures are only set to rise. By 2030, studies suggest that as many as 20.3 million people worldwide will succumb to heart attack.

Though the term 'heart attack' implies that your heart suddenly attacks you, nothing could be further from the truth. It takes several years (even decades) of gradual abuse and neglect for heart damage to occur. Here, we've gathered tips from some of India's leading specialists to help you keep your ticker running in top condition. Remember, regardless of your age or fitness levels, there's no time like present to take your heart health into your hands!

Heart attack--how it happens

What is actually regarded as a disease of the heart, begins in the coronary arteries (the blood vessels leading to the heart, supplying it with oxygen rich blood that it can then pump throughout the body). When this blood supply is blocked or cut off, the heart becomes damaged. If it's not restored immediately, then a portion of the heart can die.

"Coronary artery disease strikes people in their productive years when they have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. The last two decades have witnessed an alarming rise in the incidence of hypertension, diabetes and heart attacks, and it is affecting people at a much younger age than what was seen two or three decades ago. Every effort should be made to control its alarming increase in our society," says Dr. Pramod Jaiswal, Senior consultant, adult cardiology, Frontier Lifeline hospitals, Chennai.

So what exactly causes your arteries to clog up?

Cholesterol Clogs

The answer lies in cholesterol, a waxy substance produced by our own liver and found in certain foods. Some amount of cholesterol is required by our own bodies as it is the key ingredient needed to make vitamin D to build strong bones and to regulate your hormones, build cell walls, and create bile salts that help you digest fat. However, the liver produces an adequate amount--about 1,000 milligrams of cholesterol a day. By eating cholesterol rich food, we tend to over-load our systems. The excess cholesterol has to go somewhere, so just as you'd toss out a piece of garbage, the body gets rid of it by depositing it in your arteries.

"The deposition of cholesterol in the wall of the arteries makes the inner lining prone to injury," explains Dr Jaiswal. "Whenever this plaque ruptures due to any reason, a blood clot develops at that site causing complete blockage of the blood flow in the coronary artery, paving the way to heart attack."

Statins and Your Diet

Once your cholesterol levels rise above 200 mg/dl, your doctor immediately recommends statins, which are plant based drugs. "Statins are very effective in lowering and controlling cholesterol, but in high doses, they can have side effects such as abdominal cramps, muscle cramps, liver function abnormalities. So it needs to be monitored," says Dr Pratiksha G. Gandhi, Chairperson, IPC Heartcare Centre, Mumbai.

When you've been prescribed statins and you see your cholesterol levels drop, this is a time when you need to pay even closer attention to your diet. After all, for most patients, a faulty diet is what caused the problem in the first place. In fact, at IPC heart centre, drugs aren't immediately recommended. Rather, the patient is put on a strict diet. "We have case studies that prove that once a patient cuts down on saturated fats like fried foods, the yellow of the egg, ice creams and other junk foods and includes natural cholesterol lowering foods like methi seeds, vegetables, garlic, onions and flax seeds in their diet, this lowers the need for medicine. Some people can even be drug free."

According to Padma Shri awardee Dr K.K.Aggarwal, Senior consultant physician, Head Cardiology and Dean of the Board of Medical Education, Moolchand Medcity, New Delhi, a healthy diet is indeed the most effective medicine and the best way to prevent artery blockage. "Eat fresh, seasonal and easily digestible foods. 50% of your diet should be from fruits and vegetables," he says.

Dr Jaiswal recommends increasing your intake of Omega-3 fatty acids (present in flaxseed oil, walnut oil, soybean oil, canola oil and some types of fish such as salmon and mackerel), as this would lower blood pressure and reduce your risk of heart attack.

Women at risk

Myths and misconceptions about heart disease abound. For instance, it is a myth that heart disease and stroke only affect older men or is a rich man's disease. "Heart attacks affect as many women as men. However for women, their risk is seriously underestimated," says Dr Pratiksha Gandhi. "It is vital that women understand that they are at risk too, because it causes 1 in 3 female deaths. Shockingly, that's about one death per minute! An annual cardiac check-up is a must (for all)".

Vital Care

If your loved one is having a heart attack, it is vital that you act quickly. Ensure that aspirin is on hand and that he/she reaches the hospital with minimal delay. "The patient must chew a tablet of soluble aspirin even before reaching the hospital, as it can help to reduce the extent of damage," says Dr Jaiswal.

Monitoring your heart health in the different stages of your life is critical, so if you haven't already, then just take this article to heart!

(The author can be contacted at kamala.metroplus@gmail.com)