High-stress jobs and poor lifestyle choices can lead to increased risk levels for heart attack and stroke. Here, DR HENRY KOK shares some heart health tips specific to expats.
Risk factors for expats
Did you know that serious heart issues like coronary heart disease and atrial fibrillation are often asymptomatic? This means they don’t show or produce symptoms; so, they often go undiagnosed. Instead, the first symptom can be a serious, life threatening heart episode or stroke.
What’s even more sobering is that our expat lives are aligned to some of the contributing risk factors for these heart issues. It’s important that, as expats, we keep on top of our heart health and have a plan for any heart-related issues that might arise. It may sound dramatic, but being actively aware of your heart health could be life-saving – and it’s pretty easy to get on top of it.
We turned to an expert, Dr Henry Kok, a cardiologist from Hong Kong Adventist Hospital, for some guidance. In his practice, Dr Kok deals with many expats, and he has generously shared three essential and easy steps we can all initiate to take charge of our heart health.
3 essential steps to take charge of your heart health
Step 1: Know your risk level
Why is it important to know your risk level? One word: Preventability.
There are more than 20 risk factors that contribute to serious heart diseases. Many of these are asymptomatic, so it’s important you don’t assume you’re healthy. Get regular check-ups with your doctor and know your family history. This will help ensure your first symptom isn’t a stroke or a major heart attack.
Once your doctor has made an assessment and you know your risk level, you can then be treated, or you can make some lifestyle changes, if necessary. Knowing your risk level and treating risk factors will minimise your risk of serious heart episodes.
Step 2: Individualise your healthy lifestyle
“Health is not a one-size-fits-all situation,” says Dr Kok. He says that, when it comes to our lifestyle and health choices, what might work for one expat, may not work for another.
Dr Kok notes that it’s important we engage with an expert, rather than an enthusiast. This is particularly true when it comes to exercise and diet.
Once we identify our risk factors, these should be applied to create an individualised healthy lifestyle plan. Diet and exercise play an important role in this step.
How much exercise is enough? Dr Kok says that in this area it’s not always about increasing exercise. In fact, he notes that over-exercising is also problem among expats. Managing stress through exercise means some expats overdo it on the exercise front. People can suffer from a heart attack or arrhythmia by over-exercising.
Diet also needs to be personalised. A diet for those with cholesterol risk factors will be different to those who don’t have familial or diet induced cholesterol challenges. Dr Kok cites the consumption of eggs as a good example of applying your risk factors to individualise your plan.
Step 3: Follow advice and have an emergency plan
Dr Kok urges all expats to follow their doctor’s advice and stay in regular contact with a doctor, especially if you’re relocating. This includes accepting medications, reviewing ongoing prescriptions and refraining from self-medicating.
Speaking specifically about statins (cholesterol medications), which many are hesitant to take, Dr Kok says, “Statin side effects are minimal; the risk when you don’t take them is huge.”
He also highlights an update on the research results regarding self-medication with aspirin. “Aspirin is a great example – lots of people take it even without any confirmed blood vessel diseases. However, the benefits are disproven. There are more effective ways to manage stroke risk.”
What’s your emergency plan?
“Even if you have minimal risk factors, heart attack and stroke can still occur,” advises Dr Kok. “So, have a plan; know your closest Hong Kong hospital with 24-hour coronary care service.”
It goes without saying that understanding your insurance is also critical – know what you’re covered for and where you can go. This is one less thing to deal with during this time-critical situation.
Location proximity and 24-hour care is important because time is a leading factor in the success of recovery after a serious heart incident. In the case of a stroke, it’s said to give the best chance of recovery if a patient is treated within 4.5 hours of the incident.
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 infection is highly spreadable and can be fatal. It also appears that people with chronic illnesses are more prone to acquire the more severe form of the infection. So, if you have diabetes or chronic heart disease, for example, you should take medication regularly and follow infection prevention guidelines vigilantly.
You can find out more about heart health in this video.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.