As many as 2.4 million Canadians over the age of 20 are living with heart disease, and about 12 Canadians die from heart disease every hour. It’s a big problem in North America and other parts of the world, but one that be combated by making some simple health and lifestyle changes. Before we get to that though, we’re going to take a look at the common types of heart disease that one can be diagnosed with.

The term “heart disease” generally encompasses a wide range of cardiovascular problems, including arrhythmia (heart rhythm abnormality), atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), cardiomyopathy (hardening or weakening of the heart muscles), congenital heart defects (irregularities present at birth), heart infections (caused by viruses, bacteria or parasites), as well as coronary artery disease (the buildup of plaque in the arteries of the heart.) Symptoms of the aforementioned conditions vary from person to person, and may range in everything from feeling lightheaded, dizziness, fainting, racing heartbeat, slow pulse, chest pain, tingling, coldness or numbness of the limbs, weak legs and arms, shortness of breath, indigestion, bloating, swollen ankles and feet, coughing, fever, chills, and even skin rash.

There are also many reasons why one might develop heart disease. For example, things like diabetes, excessive alcohol or caffeine consumption, substance use, certain medications, supplements and herbal remedies, pre-existing heart disease, and even stress and anxiety. Your risk of developing heart disease also increases significantly if there is a history of heart disease in your family, your age, gender and ethnicity – and these are all things you cannot control. Your risk also increases if you have high cholesterol and high blood pressure, are a smoker, overweight or obese, and are physically inactive. These are things that can be controlled, however, and this is where lifestyle plays a big part in staying healthy.

A healthy diet is one of the best weapons one can have when it comes to fighting and reducing the risk of heart disease, and something I recommends for all patients regardless of age or gender. It’s important to choose foods that are rich in nutrients, containing things like vitamins, minerals and fibre, and are low in calories. Your diet should emphasize consumption of more fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grain, poultry, fish, legumes, certain nuts, and low-fat dairy products. Red meat and foods that contain sugar should be avoided. You can find great heart-healthy recipes here. I also suggest coordinating your diet with physical activity, as this will help your body use up any extra calories that it takes in. As little as 30 minutes of low-impact exercise every day can improve your health significantly, while 3 to 4 40-minute sessions of moderate to vigorous physical activity will help reduce things like cholesterol and blood pressure. If you’re someone who is used to living a sedentary lifestyle, don’t start off too strongly. Take baby steps. You can even work your way up, starting from 10 minutes, to 20 minutes, and increasing the length of your exercise routine by another 10 minutes each week. A little can often go a long way, and you are much more likely to live a longer, healthier life if you exercise compared to those who don’t.

Lastly, reduce your levels of stress, as studies have shown that this can increase your risk factors for heart disease. For example, if you’re dealing with stress and anxiety, you may turn to food (usually the unhealthy kinds) to help yourself cope. Instead, work on identifying your triggers of stress and avoiding them as much as possible – whether it’s through talking with a friend, a family member, trusted medical professional, or even by simply taking some time for yourself and improving your self-care.

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