Tips on how to improve your heart health

Heart disease is the biggest cause of death for women, but Dr. Danielle Martin from Toronto's Women's College Hospital says there are ways you can improve your heart health.

By Dr. Danielle Martin

Tips on how to improve your heart health
Photography by John Hryniuk
What do you think of when you hear a phrase like "women’s health"?

Many of us picture high-profile campaigns about breast and other cancers, or reproductive health issues—but, in fact, heart disease is the number one cause of death for women over 55.

In the past, health professionals were trained to think of heart disease mainly as a men’s issue. This mentality led to gaps in awareness (when Canadian women were asked to name the greatest health problem for their gender, only 13 percent correctly answered heart disease) and treatment (after a heart attack, women are less likely to be admitted to intensive care settings and ‚Ä®cardiac rehabilitation programs, or to receive interventions such as bypass surgery).

Today, thanks to public health campaigns and the work of advocates, there is growing awareness that heart health is a women’s issue, too.

When it comes to your heart, there is good news on two fronts.

First, you have the power to reduce your risk of a heart attack right now. Some risk factors are beyond your control, such as age, gender and family history. But there is much that you can control.

Many of the risk factors for heart attack and stroke can be reduced or even eliminated. Smoking is a big one: If you smoke, the single best thing you can do is stop. Other risk factors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, can be significantly reduced by effectively managing those chronic conditions. Management includes eating a healthful diet with lots of vegetables and minimal processed foods; exercising and keeping a healthy body weight; and, when necessary, taking medications regularly and as prescribed.
 
The other piece of good news is that the Canadian health-care system has made some much needed changes to the way heart health is managed. One challenge in the past was the long wait times to see a cardiac specialist. In recent years, Canada has been a world leader in improving access to cardiac care. For example, back in 1990, the Cardiac Care Network of Ontario set out to reduce wait times. It increased coordination between family doctors and cardiologists by creating a central database and an urgency rating system.

The result? Today, 17 cardiac centres across Ontario link patients, doctors, cardiologists and hospitals. The moment a patient is referred, they are assigned a maximum safe wait time and given a tool kit of educational resources.

Since 2004, regional differences in wait times have gone down, and nearly all Ontarians waiting for heart treatment  and procedures are seen within their recommended wait times.

Both at the individual level and at the systemic level, there is much we can do to reduce the risk of heart disease and promote heart health. Since February is Heart Month, it’s a good time to reflect on the good work that’s been done and on the work that remains still to do.

We have lots more health advice from Dr. Martin, including how to find your mind-body connection.

This content is vetted by medical experts

                                               
This story was originally titled "From the Heart" in the February 2014 issue.
           
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