The link between obesity and cardiovascular disease
30 July 2020
Ten years ago we may rarely hear of young people dying of heart disease, but today it seems to have become a norm.
This situation is increasingly worrying, especially with the Department of Statistics Malaysia 2019 reporting that cardiovascular disease ranks top and remains the number one killer of Malaysians for 14 consecutive years, from 2005 to 2018.
In 2018 alone, a total of 18,267 patients died from diseases and heart attacks. What are the causes for such an increase?
Sunway Medical Centre Consultant Cardiologist, Dr Mohd Kamal Mohd Arshad said obesity is one of the causes of the increase in the number of cardiovascular patients in Malaysia.
Based on the 2019 National Health and Morbidity Survey, said Dr Mohd Kamal, one in two adults in the country has weight problems and obesity.
To make matters worse, the World Population Review 2019 report also lists Malaysia as the first country in Southeast Asia with obesity.
"Not only adults but children between the ages of five to 17 in the country are also showing a drastic increase in obesity," he told mStar.
The link between obesity and cardiovascular disease
Generally, men with over 25% body fat while women with over 35% body fat are considered obese. Aside from body fat percentage, Body Mass Index (BMI) is another way to classify a person’s weight.
Dr Mohd Kamal said, individuals who are overweight or obese are not only at risk for heart problems but also other diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and stroke.
Clearly, there are several external factors that cause a person to be overweight or obese including nutrition and lack of exercise.
"The most popular factor is the intake of high fat foods such as fast food and carbonated beverages. This is because these foods and drinks contain very high sugar and calories.
"Many choose to enjoy fast and unhealthy food probably because it is easily available and the price is cheaper.
"The lack of exercise is also a popular factor, with technology and facilities many of us are lazy to move," he said.
Danger of obesity, plaque accumulates in the arteries
Additionally, Dr Mohd Kamal said, when a person is overweight, the heart has to work harder to pump blood throughout the body.
The situation can put pressure on the blood vessels and cause it to become faster and is able to change the structure of the heart.
The condition can get worse when fat or plaque accumulates in the arteries over a long period of time causing it to narrow.
The condition, said Dr Mohd Kamal, can cause red blood cells that have oxygen to be unable to reach the heart and cause chest pain known as angina.
"The situation can be dangerous when the plaque breaks and forms a blood clot in the affected area. This blood clot will block the blood flow to the heart and can cause a heart attack," he explained.
Dr Mohd Kamal added that the risk of angina, namely chest pain and heart attack can also be caused by an unhealthy lifestyle such as smoking and failure to control other diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol.
"In fact, not only obese individuals can be affected by heart-related diseases but individuals with normal weight also face the same risk if they do not lead a healthy lifestyle.
"There are also cases of a person who is seen as 'healthy' but experienced a heart attack. When an examination is done, the individual has various other diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure that are not noticed," he said.
Dr Mohd Kamal said there are several signs that a person may have pain or heart attack including:
- Chest pain that tightens or presses on the left or middle of the chest.
- Chest pain that worsens when working or doing activities but decreases when resting.
- Pain that spreads to the jaw, neck or arm (usually the left arm).
- Pain accompanied by shortness of breath, nausea, sweating or fainting.
For that reason, Dr Mohd Kamal said it is very important for every individual to lead a healthy lifestyle, especially among young people to avoid cardiovascular related diseases.
There are several important steps that can be taken to prevent the disease including:
For individuals aged 30 and above, Dr Mohd Kamal recommends going for a health screening at least once a year to ensure the heart is in good health as well as to avoid any other diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
Individuals with cardiovascular problems, on the other hand, are advised to have a scheduled health screening.
- Quit smoking
Many patients have a history of smoking without realising that it is one of the causes of heart-related diseases.
This is because cigarette smoke alone contains more than 4,000 types of toxic chemicals including nicotine, carbon monoxide and tar. Nicotine can damage blood vessels and interfere with blood flow in the body.
It can also shrink blood vessels and reduce the supply of oxygen to the heart and body. It also increases the heart rate.
- Healthy eating
Nutrition is the most important factor in maintaining health and we are advised not to overdo it in enjoying food as well as increase the intake of grains and legumes in addition to vegetables and fruits.
It is best to avoid foods that are high in sugar and salt, especially for those at risk.
We are strongly encouraged to exercise three times a week by doing physical activities such as walking, jogging, cycling, aerobics or playing futsal.
What’s important when exercising is it can burn calories and control weight while lowering the risk of disease.
Therefore, all parties need to step up their respective roles to prevent heart disease given the many risk factors that cause this number one killer.
"We must remember that this heart-related disease is no longer a disease of the elderly but it has become a habit in young people.
"It is not too late to change your lifestyle because it can provide various benefits as well as reduce the risk of various diseases," he said.