Mark Zuckerberg had declared heart disease as one of the four major causes of early death that he would be pumping money into.
Why does heart disease feature in Zuckerberg’s list? After all, isn’t it a problem of older people?
Well, the reality is that there are 45 million coronary heart disease cases in India and a significant number are young people in their twenties and thirties. Even worse is that many of these cases result in death.
So, if you’re thinking that at 25 you are immune to a fatal heart attack, think again.
What is Your Level of Risk?
There was a time when the factors responsible for heart disease could not be changed. They included age, sex and family history.
Over the last few decades, however, the scales have tilted and factors like diet, exercise and stress now primarily determine the risk of heart ailments. The single biggest culprit is high blood pressure which results in 13% of deaths caused by heart disease. Tobacco, alcohol, high blood sugar, inactive lifestyle and obesity follow close behind.
The good news is obvious, then – controlling these risk factors can reduce your risk of developing a heart problem by over 80%.
What Can You do?
Well, the first step is understanding the role each of these factors plays and what you can do to keep your heart healthy. The World Heart Federation launched a tool called the Heart IQ test which helps you explore how to lower your risk of developing heart disease. Amongst other things, eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly and staying away from tobacco can ensure that you remain young at heart.
But tools such as Heart IQ do not have to be limited to young people in big cities alone. They can be translated into local languages and downloaded on smartphones. Government health workers can use these tools for creating awareness and encouraging people to adopt a healthy lifestyle in villages and slums where most of India lives.
We have a young and tech savvy population so why not make the most of it in fighting heart disease?
Who is at Greater Risk?
Similar to other health issues, heart disease also affects the poor disproportionately. In India, large numbers of people in villages and urban slums are slipping deeper into poverty as a result of catastrophic expenses for heart problems.
What is worse is that, in these areas we are coping with a double disease burden. Heart ailments and diabetes have raised their ugly head while we are still battling old foes like tuberculosis and diarrhoea.
A big reason for this is that we are too focused on hospitals. This is problematic because by the time you go to a hospital your condition is likely to be already quite serious. We must not forget that “prevention is better than cure”. So what you need to do is to go for regular check-ups to your doctor and not wait for symptoms to show up or worsen.
A study conducted by Trust for America’s Health had estimated that there is a return of six dollars for every dollar invested in programmes that encourage people to adopt a healthier lifestyle for a stronger heart. The gain is even more substantial if one takes into account fewer school or work days missed and better quality of life.
In a country like India where the spending on healthcare is already pretty dismal, we cannot afford to let heart disease progress to an advanced stage for so many people. The price we will have to pay socially and economically is too high. Every village and slum, therefore, needs to have health workers and at least one doctor who can screen and counsel young people for heart problems.
The health system no doubt needs to be better but ultimately keeping your heart strong comes down to the choices you make.
So swap that big Mac for an apple. Climb the stairs at work instead of using the lift. Stub out that cigarette. And go see your doctor for a basic health check today. These small steps can make sure your heart goes on and on.
(This story was first published on September 29 2016. It has been re-published to mark the ongoing Heart Month.)
(The writer is a public health specialist who has led the health portfolio
of The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation in India. She is a World Economic
Forum Global Shaper. The article was previously published on September 29 2016, it is being republished again in raising the awareness of Heart Diseases during Heart Month.)