Deborah Chen | Pay attention to heart health
February is recognised as Heart Month. The theme for this year is “Check your Heart; be COVID smart”. There are a number of activities planned during the month. The vision of the Heart Foundation of Jamaica is for Jamaicans to have a longer and better quality of life through the prevention and control of cardiovascular disease. Our mission is to promote a healthy lifestyle, leading to the prevention of cardiovascular disease through health education and health promotion.
For more than a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated our consciousness, highlighting the health challenges we face as a country and the need to take care of our health, especially for our vulnerable populations. Based on currently available data, older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions are at higher risk for severe illness and complications from COVID-19, including persons with heart disease.
The term “heart disease” refers to several types of heart conditions, the most common of which is coronary artery disease (CAD), which affects the blood flow to the heart. Decreased blood flow can cause a heart attack. Sometimes heart disease is “silent” and not diagnosed until a person experiences signs or symptoms of a heart attack, heart failure, or an arrhythmia – fluttering feelings in the chest or palpitations. Heart disease is preventable, but is still a very real danger in Jamaica and even more so now.
Persons with underlying heart conditions may have a weakened immune system, making them more vulnerable to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The virus itself can damage the heart in several ways. It acts by attacking the lungs, however, this could affect the heart, especially a diseased heart, which has to pump harder to get oxygenated blood throughout the body if the lungs aren’t working at full potential. Fever and infection cause the heart rate to speed up. The virus may also stimulate increased formation of clots in blood vessels throughout the body, including the heart, and can cause heart muscle or vessel damage.
According to the American Heart Association, a growing number of studies suggest that many COVID-19 survivors experience some type of heart damage even if they didn’t have underlying heart disease and weren’t hospitalised. This raises concerns that there may be individuals who recover from the initial infection but who are left with heart damage and complications.
With these alarming findings, and as we try to navigate the new realities and the “new norm” presented by COVID-19, we must continue to take precautions to protect ourselves through proper and frequent handwashing, keeping surfaces clean, avoiding public gatherings, practising social distancing, wearing masks, and following medical advice and the advice of public-health authorities.
High blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, and smoking are key risk factors for heart disease. Several other medical conditions and lifestyle choices can also put people at a higher risk for heart disease, including diabetes, overweight/obesity, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, and excessive alcohol use. Unfortunately, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, in Jamaica, we exhibited high rates of these risk factors, which we must address. Life in a pandemic is stressful, but now it is even more important to ensure that we don’t let heart-healthy habits lapse. Here are some tips:
• Exercise regularly. Be more active, aiming for at least 30 minutes of exercise daily. Even in the house, walk around, go up and down the stairs to maintain a level of physical activity.
• Modify your diet. Change your cooking habits and eat healthy meals that benefit your health in the long and short term. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, avoid fried foods and excessive processed foods, including foods and drinks with added sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. Read your food labels to limit the purchase and consumption of food high in fat, salt, and sugar.
• Manage your stress. Take care of your mental health and reduce stress by doing things that relax you, and ensure that you have an adequate support system.
•Limit alcohol intake and quit smoking. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness. Smokers may have reduced lung capacity, which will put them more at risk. Additionally, the act of bringing a cigarette to your mouth provides a chance for the virus to be transmitted. Now is a good time to quit smoking.
• Listen to your body and seek medical attention. The symptoms of heart disease depend on the specific type a person has. Also, some heart conditions cause no symptoms at all. Angina/chest pain, difficulty breathing, fatigue, light-headedness, swelling due to fluid retention (oedema) may indicate a heart problem. Heart attacks are medical emergencies. Do not delay seeking urgent medication attention as soon as you recognise symptoms – chest pain or discomfort, upper back or neck pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea or vomiting, extreme fatigue, upper-body discomfort, dizziness, and shortness of breath.
• Continue taking medications as prescribed, and maintain regular visits to the doctor. The pandemic should not restrict your necessary visits to the doctor, but be sure to do so in a safe way, adhering to all COVID-19 advice from public-health authorities.
• Know your numbers and your health status. Adults, especially those over 50 years, those with hypertension, diabetes, or with a family history of these conditions or family history of heart disease should do regular screenings, including screening for heart disease, high blood pressure, cholesterol ,and body mass index to determine weight status.
ADDRESSING RISK FACTORS
In addition, Jamaica will also need a comprehensive approach to addressing risk factors, underlying conditions, and non-communicable diseases in order to reduce the impact of COVID-19 and any other disease that may affect us in the future. This will include the following:
• Long-needed public-health policies such as the promotion of and access to safe and nutritious foods
• Screening and treatment for adults and children
• Increased knowledge about non-communicable diseases
• Front-of-package nutrition labelling to ensure that consumers make healthier food choices
• Fiscal policies to discourage the consumption of unhealthy foods
• Restrictions on the marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods to children to ensure that we foster healthy eating habits early in life
Heart disease is not a new phenomenon, and our vulnerabilities and risk factors are not new, but COVID-19 provides an opportunity for change. What could be dearer to us than our heart? Heart health is the number-one priority of the Heart Foundation of Jamaica. As we have continued and increased our efforts to care for the health and well-being of the public during the pandemic, especially those with underlying conditions such as heart disease, we urge all Jamaicans to adopt heart-healthy behaviours.
We also urge our Government to implement crucial public-health policies to provide a supportive environment for healthy behaviours, to protect our population and bolster our resilience going forward. Come visit the Heart Foundation of Jamaica. Check your Heart; be COVID smart!!”
- Deborah Chen is the executive director of the Heart Foundation of Jamaica. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.