( Article By: Elizabeth Rogers - 8 steps towards a healthy heart:

The risk of heart disease is up across all age groups. What we can do to live longer, healthier lives.

Valentine's Day isn't the only reason to worry about matters of the heart. February is Heart Month, and time to give this essential organ some much-needed love and attention.

Cardiovascular disease is still the top killer, but we've seen hope in recent decades with declining rates of heart disease and stroke. Unfortunately, that success could soon be short-lived. Experts are now warning that an increasing number of Canadians are at risk.

Can we blame it on the aging population? Not so fast! Baby boomers are only part of the story, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation's 2010 Annual Report on Canadians' Health. Thanks to a "perfect storm" of unhealthy habits and rising rates of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, people of all ages are facing an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, adults in their 20s and 30s and women aged 35-45 are among the latest groups identified as being at-risk. Immigrants and aboriginal communities face additional challenges too.

"In a very short time, the face of heart disease in Canada has changed to include groups that have historically been immune to the threats of heart disease," says Dr. Beth Abramson, cardiologist and spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, in the report. "But the combination of new groups at risk of heart disease and the explosion of unhealthy habits across Canada have accelerated the impact of these threats which are now converging and erasing the progress we've made in treating heart disease over the last 50 years."

So what can we do about it? Here is how we can beat heart disease, according to the experts.

1. Get active (and stay active)

We have plenty of excuses to skip exercise -- like not enough time or energy, too much stress and too many commitments. According to Statistics Canada, only half of all Canadians over the age of 12 report being physically active, and people over the age of 65 are the least active age group of all.

However, there are many reasons to make more of an effort -- like lowering blood pressure, controlling blood sugar levels, maintaining a healthy weight, reducing stress and increasing good cholesterol levels. Experts estimate that people who aren't active can cut their risk of a heart attack by as much as 35-55 per cent by getting more exercise. That means making time -- and making it a priority -- to get that 30-60 minutes of moderate activity, most days per week.

2. Eat better

Dare we say eat more fruits and veggies? Even in the top-ranking provinces and territories for adequate fruit and vegetable consumption, only half of all Canadians are getting the recommended daily amount. Fruits and vegetables are good for us for many reasons -- especially the vitamins and antioxidants they provide.

It's time to get adventurous in the kitchen and stop thinking of healthy eating as deprivation. Embrace heart-healthy foods like salmon, nuts, olive oil, legumes, lean meats and poultry. Cook up a new recipe or try a new cooking technique. (Check out 6 keys to healthy eating and the Heart and Stroke Foundation's Recipes section for ideas.)

We know what foods to avoid: Bad fats, processed foods and foods high in sugars and salt. Consuming too much alcohol can increase the risk of obesity and some forms of heart disease too.

3. Obtain (and maintain) a healthy weight

You've heard the news: Obesity rates are up among adults and children, and more than half of the Canadian population is overweight. These extra pounds (especially around the mid-section) contribute to heart disease and other issues that impact heart disease such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol.

Don't give up on your resolution to get fit. Maintaining a healthy weight requires lifestyle changes, not just short-term sacrifice. If you need a little help beyond exercise and a healthy diet, talk to your doctor and try online tools like the Heart and Stroke Foundation's My Healthy Weight Action Plan™.

4. Stop smoking (and avoid second-hand smoke)

In the next 20 years, smoking and second hand smoke will kill around one million Canadians if we don't "butt out" now. It's not just about lung health -- roughly 30 per cent of the 37,000 smoking-related deaths each year are heart disease or stroke-related. Smoking accounts for nearly 15 per cent of all deaths from cardiovascular disease.

Think it's too late to quit because "the damage has been done"? Think again. Experts note that within one year of going smoke-free, people can cut their risk of heart disease by half. When they hit the 15 year mark, their risk of dying will almost equal a non-smoker's.

5. Control cholesterol

Do you know your target range? Nearly 40 per cent of Canadians have blood cholesterol levels that are higher than they should be. While some general guidelines apply, the ideal level varies from person to person. People who have certain risk factors -- like age, sex, blood pressure, diabetes and smoking -- may need to aim a little lower.

Experts recommend keeping up with regular screenings and taking action to keep cholesterol in check. Eating foods that are low in (or free of) saturated fats, trans fats and dietary cholesterol is one big step, but 75 per cent of total blood cholesterol is actually made by your body. We can't change our genes, but weight and physical activity impact how much your body produces.

6. Manage blood pressure

Experts warn that high blood pressure (or hypertension) is one of the most dangerous risk factors for heart disease. Overall, the incidence of high blood pressure jumped by 77 per cent from 1994-2005 (the latest years for which data is available). The ages of the people affected are troubling too --- among people ages 35-39 the incidence of high blood pressure increased 127 per cent.

Due to a lack of symptoms many people aren't aware they're affected by this "silent killer". That's why it's important to have your blood pressure checked at least once every two years after the age of 20 (more often if you already have hypertension) and keep up with your healthy habits.

7. Reduce blood sugar

Heart disease often goes hand-in-hand with diabetes, and 80 per cent of people with diabetes will die from heart disease or stroke. The problem is many people aren't aware they have type-2 diabetes, or that they're in that crucial pre-diabetes stage where the condition can be reversed.

Symptoms are subtle or non-existent, which means that monitoring blood sugar levels is important. The Canadian Diabetes Association recommends screening tests once every three years after the age of 40. If you're in a high risk group or have a family member with type-2 diabetes, you should be tested earlier and more often.

Lifestyle choices are critical for preventing type-2 diabetes. In addition to exercise and weight management, diet is a key factor. Limiting or avoiding sugary and starchy foods (like pastries, desserts and refined starches) in favour of foods that take longer to digest can help maintain a consistent blood sugar level and prevent disruptive spikes. (See Put diabetes on hold for more information.)

8. Manage stress

We'd love to be able to say "eliminate stress", but we know that's impossible. The best we can do is to try to reduce it -- and find a better way to deal with it. Effective communication, adapting expectations and learning to say no can help in relationships at home and at work. Also, relaxation techniques, volunteering, hobbies, a vacation and sometimes a good cry can help alleviate stress. (Check out these 15 stress-reducing songs.)

Already taking these steps? You're well ahead of most Canadians. Making these changes won't guarantee a life free of heart disease, but they can affect how long we live and how many years of health we enjoy. Skip them and we risk a downward spiral of chronic disease that can seriously affect our finances, well-being and quality of life. The advice isn't new, but educators, advocates and health experts alike hope that we'll finally heed it.


Download the Heart and Stroke Foundation report here.

For more advice on heart-healthy living -- including risk factors and assessment tools -- visit the websites of the The American Heart Association, The Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation and The British Heart Foundation.

Top foods your heart will love Article By: Elizabeth Rogers

Tired of being told what you can't have? Your heart -- and your taste buds -- will thank you for eating these delicious and healthy foods.

Cut back, don't eat, avoid, limit, eat less of, stay away from, forbidden... There are plenty of negative words to keep our cravings in check. We lecture ourselves because heart disease is a top killer, so why wouldn't we do whatever we could to prevent it? However, a dinner out or even a trip to the grocery store can be a frustrating experience as we mentally cross off foods that are on our diet's black list.

It's time to turn that thinking around and stop focussing on the negatives. While there isn't one particular food that can protect the heart on its own, here's a quick overview of foods you can't get enough of:


We're always told to eat more vegetables, and with good reason. The nutrients and dietary fibre -- not to mention low calorie count and little (if any) fat -- make them a smart choice. There is a lot of research about the many health benefits of various kinds of vegetables, but it all boils down to this: Eat a variety of colours (especially orange, red and dark green vegetables like tomatoes and leafy greens) and eat a lot of them.

Many of us have a good helping at dinner time, but we need to incorporate more veggies into our routines -- like mushrooms and peppers in a breakfast omelette, a sandwich heaped with vegetable toppings at lunch and vegetable sticks (perhaps with a healthy dip) for a snack. Stir fries, grilled vegetables and salads are an easy way to get some variety -- and they make great leftovers for lunch the next day.

To effectively reduce your risk, you'll need to meet Health Canada's guidelines of eating seven to ten servings of fruits and vegetables per day.


You probably know much of the conventional wisdom about fruit: Citrus provides a vitamin C punch, whole fruit is better than juice, and dried fruit makes a sweet alternative to candy. Berries are a rich source of vitamin C, fibre and anti-oxidants, and cranberries prevent urinary tract infections. Purple grapes are also top the list of tasty and beneficial foods.

But do you know how to sneak more of them into your diet? Dieticians such as Leslie Beck, author of Heart Healthy Foods for Life, recommend making fruit part of your routine -- like regularly having a serving or two at breakfast or as a snack. Try slicing up some fruit for a salad with those dark leafy greens and top with a healthy oil and vinegar dressing. Toss some fruit -- dried or fresh -- into your baking or onto your morning cereal, and opt for marinated or grilled fruit for dessert. If you're serving a crowd, fruit platters with a low-fat dip are sure to be a hit (especially when the temperatures climb).

Admittedly, fruits and vegetables can get a little monotonous, so branch out and try something new. Try exotic fruits and vegetables for more variety. (They can be more expensive, so use them as an accent in mixed dishes).


While lean meats like chicken are a staple in many diets, most of us aren't getting enough of those important omega-3 fats. Fish is a rich source of heart-protecting eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) . These fats can reduce irregular heart beats (which lead to cardiac arrest), reduce inflammation in the body, reduce "bad" cholesterol levels and lower the amount of dangerous triglycerides in the blood

How much do you need? The current recommendations are two servings of fatty fish per week. Your body can store omega-3 fats, so you don't need a daily dose. Atlantic mackerel, salmon (Atlantic and Chinook are best), Atlantic herring and rainbow trout have the highest levels of EPA and DHA, while tilapia, shrimp and haddock don't have as much per serving. (See Fishing for happiness for full details).

If you don't like fish or are concerned about mercury levels, try a fish oil supplement instead. Another option is aim for plenty of alpha-linolenic acid (AHA) -- another omega-3 fat that is found in flax, canola oil, salba and fortified foods.

Legumes and soy

Do you know what to do with a bag of dried beans, lentils or peas? In her book Beck notes that most people don't use these beneficial ingredients because they aren't sure how to prepare them.

However, there are many good reasons to learn. These meat alternatives are high in fibre and don't have saturated fat. Some studies have found that eating legumes a few times each week lowers your risk of heart disease and diabetes. With the exception of soybeans, legumes also lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Legumes are a type of carbohydrate that digests slowly, meaning that they can improve blood sugar control. They also contain a powerful combination of vegetarian protein, folate, potassium and calcium.

How can you include them in your diet? Use them instead of meat for three or four meals a week. Mixed bean salads, vegetarian chilli and soups are all popular options, but you can also toss legumes in salads or tomato sauce, and use tofu in stir fries or desserts. Beck notes that you can substitute half of the ground beef in recipes with beans in tacos and burritos.

Another bonus: legumes are easy on the budget because they're often a fraction of the cost of meat. (See Beans really are good for you for more information and recipes).


If you're familiar with the Mediterranean Diet then you already know that nuts are good for you. People who eat nuts two to four times a week have a lower risk of developing heart disease -- and dying from it.

Does it matter what kind? Almonds get a lot of attention, but peanuts, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios and other nuts are also beneficial. Some nuts have magnesium or vitamin B, and walnuts in particular are high in ALA. A serving of 14 halves provides more than the daily recommendation. Raw and unsalted nuts are better for calorie and sodium intake, and getting the amount right is important. For almonds, the average serving size is about 24, 28 peanuts make up a portion, and 18 cashews are sufficient. (Beck's book has a full list of serving sizes).

To get a little nutty with your diet, try using them in stir fries and salads. If you're not a peanut butter fan, try almond butter or cashew butter on your toast. Snack on nuts and dried fruit, and toss a few nuts in your oatmeal or cereal.

Whole grains

They're better for the heart as well as the waistline. Whole grain foods use all three layers of the grain -- including the outer layer of bran (fibre) and the germ layer which provides the anti-oxidants, nutrients and unsaturated fats. Refined flours only use the starchy endosperm and therefore lose the majority of fibre and nutrients.

While the fibre alone helps protect against heart attack, whole grains also contain lots of good stuff that protects the heart -- like folate, vitamin E and potassium. They also lower the risk of developing diabetes and won't promote weight gain like their refine counterparts.

How can you tell? Look for "whole grain" on the label when you buy things like cereal, bread and pasta. When you're preparing foods, look for creative ways to add more whole grains, like using whole wheat flour instead of white for part of your recipe, sprinkling bran cereal on yoghurt or using it to add crunch to cookies, and making your own bread crumbs from the ends of whole grain bread.


Three cups a day keeps heart troubles away, according to research. Black tea has been found to lower the risk of heart attacks and decrease the chances of dying when a heart attack does happen. Green tea also provides these same benefits. Tea contains catcehins (a type of flavonoid) that helps lower blood pressure, reduce blood clotting, reduce inflammation and improve blood vessel function.

A cup of tea in the morning, one at lunch and one around dinner can do the trick, whether it's hot or iced. However, you don't need to drink it -- you can use tea in your cooking as well. Beck suggests using it in stir fry or as a rub for meat. You can use brewed tea almost anywhere you can use water in braising meats or cooking vegetables.

Dark chocolate

There's good reason to say yes (or oh yes ) to this decadent food. The catechins in dark chocolate are good for your heart. Some studies have found that they can lower blood pressure and improve your mood.

The trick is to look for high quality dark chocolate that has at least 70 percent cocoa solids. Keep the portion sizes small to avoid weight gain -- 6 grams is enough to see benefits (that's about 30 calories). You can use dark chocolate in your baking, make your own hot chocolate using cocoa powder and drizzle it on fruit slices.

You'll still want to stay clear of high calorie, high fat milk chocolate. Sadly, white chocolate doesn't offer the same benefits because it doesn't contain cocoa.

While dieticians note that you can have too much of this good thing, it's one indulgence you don't have to feel so guilty about (unless you want to -- we often enjoy foods we think we shouldn't have). (For more information, see A little chocolate for your health).

Alcohol (in moderation)

A glass of wine after a long day and a cold beer on a hot day are more than just an answer to a craving -- they can be good for the heart too. A moderate amount of alcohol -- one drink a day for women, and up to two drinks per day for men -- can do the trick, according to research.

If you're not a fan of red wine, there's no reason to worry. Despite what you may have heard, spirits, beer and other beverages have the some protective effects, according to Beck. Studies have shown that people who choose red wine tend to have other lifestyle factors working in their favour -- like a higher income and eating more fruits and vegetables -- so it's difficult to tell where the real benefit is.

But that's not an excuse for young people to drink -- the benefits only apply to middle aged and older people. There currently isn't any evidence to suggest that drinking when you're young will protect you later on, and binge drinking doesn't have any health benefits.

A note of caution: Dieticians are cautious about advising people to drink on a daily basis. There are other factors to consider, such as calories, medications and certain medical conditions.

Overall, there are many foods you can eat -- and the possible combinations are endless. If these heart-healthy options are losing their appeal, it's time for some new tricks (like a new cookbook) rather than abandoning what's good for you. Look online for recipes and don't be afraid to experiment with ingredients you haven't tried before.

(Source: 50 PLUS.COM)

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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