In Singapore, 15 people on average die from heart disease and stroke every day. Fortunately, basic lifestyle changes can go a long way towards keeping heart disease at bay.

Assistant Professor Tan Swee Yaw, Senior Consultant, Department of Cardiology and Director, Cardiovascular Rehabilitation and Preventive Cardiology, National Heart Centre Singapore (NHCS), a member of the SingHealth group, offers practical advice on what you can do to lower your risk of heart disease.

5 lifestyle changes to care for your heart and prevent heart disease

1. Stop smoking

Everyone knows cigarette smoking causes lung cancer but did you know that smokers are 3 times more likely to have a heart attack than to develop lung cancer? “If you’ve had a heart attack, the single most important thing you can do to prevent a second one is to quit smoking,” says Asst Prof Tan. Smoking up to 5 cigarettes daily increases the risk of a heart attack by 40 per cent. This would effectively cancel the protective effects conferred by taking medication.

How smoking affects the heart:

Inhaled nicotine causes blood vessels to clamp down, forcing the heart to pump harder and faster to push blood through the smaller vessels. This affects the lining of the blood vessels making it easier for fat and calcium deposits to accumulate, further narrowing the arteries. The carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke also reduces the oxygen supply in tissues. Lung irritation and breathing difficulties further strain your heart.

How to quit smoking:

  • Make a conscious effort to cut down smoking over 2 or 3 weeks and then stop smoking altogether. At first, you may want to change your daily routine if you associate smoking with specific activities.
  • Begin by giving up the first cigarette of the day. Subsequently, give up the second, then the third. Every day, try to go a little longer without a cigarette.
  • Take more fluids, fresh fruits and vegetables. If you are used to having a cigarette in your mouth, have non-sugar lozenges or low calorie sweets instead.
  • Tell your friends and family that you’re quitting, and politely (but firmly) decline when invited for ‘smoke breaks’. During the first days, try spending more time with non-smokers.
  • Speak to your doctor. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist smoking cessation clinic which has been shown to improve your chances of quitting the habit. There are also medications, special nicotine patches and chewing gum that can help someone kick the smoking habit.

Studies have shown that giving up smoking lowers the risk of heart attack by up to 50 per cent, regardless of how long you’ve smoked.

2. Maintain a healthy weight

Excess weight is associated with a higher incidence of high cholesterol, high blood pressure (hypertension) and type 2 diabetes (diabetes mellitus) – all of which contribute to the onset of heart disease. For every 10 kg of weight you lose, you can potentially reduce your systolic blood pressure by 20 mmHg.

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is a good way to check if your weight is in the healthy range. The BMI formula is:

BMI = Weight (kg) / Height (m) x Height (m)

Having a BMI between 18 to 22.9 is considered ideal.

Your risk for heart disease is also influenced by your body shape. Accumulation of fat around the waist (central obesity or so-called “apple” body shape) has been linked to a higher cardiovascular disease than fat accumulated around the hips and thighs (“pear” body shape).

Beyond your general body shape, your body fat distribution can also be assessed by the following waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) formula:

WHR = Waist circumference (cm) / Hip circumference (cm)

The healthy ratio for males should be less than 1. In females, it should be less than 0.8. Studies have shown that individuals of an acceptable weight but with central obesity are at a 3 times higher risk of heart disease compared to individuals with no accumulation of fat around their abdomen.

Read on for ways to reduce your risk of heart disease.

Ref: R14