TORONTO – Canadians are living longer lives, but these extra decades in the golden years aren’t necessarily what we envision.
Those years of not looking after our health, from unhealthy eating, lack of exercise or stress at work, take a toll on our aging bodies. They also add to our risk factors for heart disease and chronic illness.
Seniors are sitting in doctors’ offices managing a string of illnesses, likely because of the lifestyle decisions they made earlier in their lives.
“We know what the risk factors for heart attack are,” said Dr. Sonia Anand, director of the vascular medicine clinic at McMaster University in Ontario.
“Obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol and smoking. If we can improve things such as increase fruits and vegetables in the diet, and increasing physical activity then yes, we can prevent 70 per cent of heart attacks.”
Dr. Meldon Kahan, a busy Toronto doctor – he’s director of a department – suffered from a heart attack at 56 years old.
Kahan said he focused on taking care of others instead of looking after his health. Like most Canadians, he had trouble managing work-life balance.
“This sense of always juggling: work, family, other responsibilities and the end of the day was a sense of peace, because now I can just forget about everything,” he said.
“But it was a negative maladaptive way of coping: eating too much, not exercising, staying up . . .”
“If you’re stressed all the time, you don’t realize you’re stressed…you can’t take time out for yourself to exercise or do anything like that.”
Dr. Kahan shares his compelling personal story about what led to his heart attack and what lessons we can all learn from his experience.
As he was flying home from a conference, a feeling – “like nothing else I had ever felt” – grew in his chest and his breath became short.
“It was like somebody was grinding up my chest with a grinder,” he said. He was throwing up during the cab ride home as the pain intensified.
Once he got home, his wife called 911. His left main artery was completely blocked. A stent was put in place to keep the vein open.
“I came very close to dying.”
Managing health decreases heart disease risk
There are an estimated 70,000 heart attacks in Canada each year, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.
That’s one heart attack every seven minutes.
And more than 16,000 Canadians die as a result of a heart attack with most of these deaths occurring out of hospital.
Coupled with longer life expectancy, Canadians have to make sure they stave off illness for the long run.
“As people live longer, they have a greater potential to develop heart disease and for that heart disease to become a chronic disease where a heart attack may lead to heart failure, or heart arrhythmias and they require doctors’ visits and many medications to treat those conditions,” Anand says.
Implementing small changes into your daily routine could add up to significant benefits to your health, she suggests.
Include a few more servings of fruits and vegetables into your diet. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park far away from the grocery store so you spend more time walking.
“It doesn’t take joining a gym or going on a fad diet to do it. It’s these small changes that..will potentially help them lower their risk,” Anand said.
For Kahan, his heart attack was a wakeup call.
“Having the heart attack transformed everything for me, because you realize how close, I realized how close I came to dying,” he said.
Kahan lost weight and kept it off, swapping meat and potatoes for fish and smaller portions. He cut back on work, trading days of overtime for support from his family.
And he works with a trainer twice a week to keep him in shape.
“I’m very grateful in a way because, like I said, I could have died and through modern medicine I got a second chance. I feel I’ve got an obligation to use that second chance to its fullest.”