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How to Prevent Heart Disease

Heart Disease

You or the man next to you will die of a heart attack or some other disease of the blood vessels. You probably already have disease in your arteries.

These are not scare statements, just simple facts. More than half the deaths in the United States today are caused by cardiovascular ailments, and the numbers are growing. Worse, these ailments are reaching younger and younger people. For this reason, contrary to the popular misconception, our life expectancy has not improved appreciably in the last two decades despite advances elsewhere in the field of health.

This is the richest nation on earth, where funds for medical research have grown immensely, and where great strides have been made in producing new knowledge in the prevention and cure of heart disease. Should you be the victim of a heart disease, the help your doctor can give you is limited. You have about one chance in four of never even getting into a hospital heart unit alive after a heart attack, and less than one chance in two of surviving the episode to return home.

A similar situation applies to strokes. These being the odds, the best approach is certainly prevention. The tragedy is that your doctor can’t do it for you. Despite all the new knowledge now available on the care of the heart and the prevention of heart diseases, most of it is ignored by the individual. What can you do to reverse the trend?

If you want to learn how to prevent heart disease, you must begin applying some of the knowledge that has come out of research laboratories and elsewhere in the fields of exercise, diet, and way of life. It is never too early or too late to start.

The beginnings of heart conditions are gradual and insidious. They may not even affect the heart’s action. The first indication may be sudden death. Many doctors, believe there are many “silent heart attacks,” that actually damage the heart without the victim himself knowing anything is wrong. Heart attacks are not rare among men under 35. The number increases sharply for men over 35 and reaches a peak in men between 50 and 60. Women fare better, but their rate is growing. For reasons we don’t entirely understand, women before the menopause suffer 13 times fewer heart attacks than men. After menopause, the ratio decreases to two to one, men over women. After 65, the ratio is about the same.

To prevent heart disease and find out whether you’re a candidate to become one of these statistics, there are a few simple tests you can make involving your weight and your heart rate. Most people reach full growth in their early 20s. After that, unless you are involved in specialized activities like weight-lifting, almost all the weight you put on is pure fat. If you’re in good condition, the skin over most of your body should be as thin as it is on the back of your hand when you pinch it. Get a good grip with your thumb and forefinger on a layer of skin in the area of your navel. If it’s more than a half inch thick, you’re carrying a good amount of excess fat. This is a better index of your health than the reading on the bathroom scales.

A second test checks the heart rate. Your resting heart rate should not be more than 70 beats per minute (for men) or 75 (for women). It should not increase over 15 beats a minute when you stand up. After mild exercise (like running in place for one minute), when you lie down it should be less than 100 beats. If this isn’t the case, then you may have cause for concern.

If you want to prevent heart disease, you should know that you are in greater control of your future health than the best doctor on earth. You can control the three most important areas – your physical activity, your diet, and your living habits. In short, you can do more by way of prevention of heart disease, than any heart specialist can do by way of cures. In the field of exercise, I doubt whether there is any one program that could be used by everyone everywhere, but there are a few general statements. If you are not in good condition now, moderation is suggested.


Regardless of what some authorities say, exercise can kill you. Crash programs are ineffective, even dangerous, and the sporadic peak-load exercises like suddenly getting out and shoveling the snow, are the most dangerous of all. Anything that significantly exceeds your daily activity should be avoided if you want to prevent heart disease. Fad exercise programs may slim your waist or tone up the muscles of your body. These may do little or nothing for your heart. The heart is a muscle, and its strength is built up by working the heart muscle, not the arm muscle or belly muscles. The work of the heart muscle is increased when it pumps more blood as in running, jogging, and cycling.

Steady-state, endurance-type exercises are the best. You can start with a moderate walking program. After you have gradually built up to walking one hour a day and have done so daily for at least two weeks without difficulty, then you can start a jogging program or a running-in-place program. If you use an exercycle, it should be a gradual, daily program.

Exercise strengthens the heart muscle, enlarges the blood vessels, and increases the blood supply. It also burns up calories. This is great for preventive heart disease therapy. You can’t lose much weight by exercising one day, but 30 minutes of steady walking every day can cause you to lose 10 pounds in a year’s time. Heart disease can’t be prevented by exercise alone, nor can any real program of weight control be achieved by exercise alone. Both problems depend a great deal on proper diet.


In the case of atherosclerosis, diet alone may be the major culprit. Exercise can build up large healthy blood vessels, but improper diet can clog them with fatty deposits, virtually negating the gains from exercise. The problem the average person has in finding a proper diet is wading through the welter of confusion that surrounds it.

The most important point in heart disease prevention is to hinder accumulation of excess fat. If you are accumulating fat, you are eating too much or exercising too little. Calories are considered a major villain, and indeed they are, but the body needs energy to produce work, and it needs calories to produce energy. Without some calories, it could not function. If you exercise to build up your cardiovascular system, you will need the energy. Excess calories, however, can lead to dangerous fat deposits. The body produces calories by digesting foodstuffs, specifically carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

Carbohydrates do not always get as much favorable publicity as they should, but they are the staple diet of many nations with a low incidence of atherosclerosis. Fruits, vegetables, and cereals are high in carbohydrates. These are recommended foods in a proper diet. Sugar is also high in carbohydrates, but is not recommended as highly. Why? Sugar is concentrated and does not contain other essential vitamins and minerals. It is one of the most easily absorbed foods (one reason it is recommended for quick energy for athletes).

Fruits and vegetables contain a lot of roughage and other essential foodstuffs besides carbohydrates. It is not so much the amount of food you eat, as the type. Proteins are recommended in most diets, especially in this, a meat-eating country. Proteins are found chiefly in meat, fish, fowl, milk, eggs, and beans. Not all of these can be recommended indiscriminately in a proper diet. For instance, chicken and turkey can be recommended, duck and goose cannot; lean veal and fish, not bacon or shellfish; egg whites, not egg yolks.

Fats cause the most confusion, probably because they are getting the most publicity, none of it good. One gram of digested fat produces nine calories, more than twice as much as carbohydrates or proteins. Logically, a low-fat diet should be ideal for heart disease prevention. This is a good idea, but it’s not that simple. If you cut down on meat to cut down on fat, you’re also cutting down on needed protein. But we do need to limit our intake of fat.

Cholesterol is often associated with fat, although it is not a fat itself. It is probably the major villain in atherosclerosis because if enough of it is allowed to flow through the blood stream for long enough periods of time, it can be deposited in the walls of the arteries and lead to a whole series of complications. Among them are limiting the flow of blood, or breaking off and blocking the flow of blood altogether.

Yet cholesterol is essential to life. It is found in the brain, the adrenal glands, and in almost every cell in your body, and the body itself actually manufactures cholesterol. How did such a villain get to be a villain? Again, it’s not the substance itself but the amount. The body needs some cholesterol, but the amount you eat should be controlled.

Some foods are notably high in cholesterol and should be rationed, like dairy foods, especially egg yolks, and organ meats such as liver, kidneys, and brains. Shell fish should be used only in moderation.

Smoking and Drinking

In addition to sensible exercise and proper dietary habits, you need to govern your living habits if you want to prevent heart disease – the other factors that can affect your health and longevity, notably smoking and drinking. One survey shows that men who smoke a pack of cigarettes or more a day die an average of 16 years sooner than others.

It is well established that nicotine increases the heart rate, increases the amount of blood pumped by the heart, and may cause a rise in blood pressure. Nicotine itself is a poison, and like any poison it can kill tissue. Even small amounts used on a long-term basis are not good for the body. Large amounts can be fatal.

Excessive drinking includes more than alcoholic beverages. Chronic drinking of large amounts of coffee, tea, or cola drinks can do as much to elevate the heart rate as smoking. They all include caffeine. Caffeine is a powerful stimulant. Excessive intake can cause irregularities of the heart beat, including palpitation or skipped beats.

In general, five cups of coffee or tea a day is excessive. Two cups are usually enough for most people, and one is too much for highly sensitive individuals with evidence of a high heart rate or general nervousness. If you are hooked on these drinks, you are hooked on drugs and have a drug habit.

Alcohol is a loser on two counts. It has no place in a weight-control diet, and it has a poisonous effect on the heart muscles. Large amounts of alcohol can damage the heart-muscle fibers. Eventually the damaged heart is no longer able to function efficiently, and heart disease or failure may result. Your own doctor can be a big help in preparing a preventive program, and you should contact him before embarking on any drastic changes in your life style. But in the final analysis, you are your own doctor. It’s your heart, and it’s up to you to protect it and prevent any potential heart disease.

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