Most heart attacks are caused by blocked arteries that prevent normal flow of blood to heart muscles which then causes the heart muscles to die. However, stress is known to play a role in increasing risk of heart disease either directly by persistently increasing risk hormones or indirectly by making other risk factors (high cholesterol or high blood pressure) worse.
In my case and per my doctor, I have been dodging a heart attack mainly due to my age and the fact I have started relatively healthier diet (thanks to my wife), I don't smoke, and probably more physically active than my dad who had his first heart attack when he was of my age. My doctor also offered to put me on Statins which I refused due to its side effects. I wanted to see whether by changing my lifestyle I could eliminate risks or at least lower the effects of risk factors.
- Family history of heart problems
- Prolonged periods of stress at work
- Unhealthy eating habits
- Lack of exercise
My dad had his first heart attack about the same age as I am right now - early 40s. His heart attack was triggered by stress related to his demanding executive management job. He wasn't overweight or looked unhealthy in any way. His second and third heart attacks were a result of blocked arteries which then required bypass surgery. Once someone gets a heart attack they are pretty much stuck on taking medication for rest of their life and there is a high chance of subsequent heart attacks. Life is never the same after a heart attack as the heart loses ability to pump blood at its full capacity and the person cannot take part in any activities requiring physical exertion. I remember seeing my dad unable to take stairs or go for long walks without having to stop and take a breather every few minutes. I believe one of my uncle passed away due to heart problem as well. I do have high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides and per my doctor the high levels are family or genetic related.
Looking at my engineering career, I knew stress was one of the big if not the biggest risk factors. This was mainly because how I dealt with work related stress. I took my work very seriously and quite personally. I would emotionally involve myself into a project and then as the project goes through its ups and downs, so would my emotions and stress levels. I also had a hard time preventing stress from invading my personal life. Stress and worries at work would spill over into my personal life and cause me to lose sleep or not able to enjoy life as much as I wanted.
Apart from work related stress, eating healthy was a struggle. Our two main cafeterias at work had many options for lunch. There were healthier options like salad bar, but there were also too many not so healthy food temptations such as juicy cheese burger, Italian pasta with rich sauce or pizza, Mexican, Indian, and Asian Fusion dishes full of flavors and calories. I would go to the cafeteria with the determination of eating a salad but end up getting one of the other tasty dishes for comfort.
My favorite food is a hamburger and whenever a new burger joint opens up in our town, I would go and check it out. I even flew to Japan for a hamburger, well actually we went there on a vacation and discovered this 7-decker beauty:
I ate the Japanese hamburger with an egg on top and two pieces of boiled carrots, a broccoli, and a few pieces of potatoes (the healthier option):
As you can see, I am a sucker for hamburgers and could have easily started a hamburger blog with all the hamburger and cheese burger pictures I have collected over the years.
Sadly, high consumption of red meat is linked to heart disease and many other health issues. I had to reduce my consumption of red meat and went from eating two to three hamburgers per week to one per month, and now down to one every six months. I am not sure if I will be able to completely give up eating hamburgers and red meat, but at minimum I would reduce it to special occasions or once per year.
Since I left my job, my easy access to unhealthy or high calorie foods went away as well. One of my colleagues asked me once what I would miss the most after leaving my job, and I responded - eating in cafeteria.
My wife doesn't eat red meat so we don't buy any. For lunch I would either have something left over from previous night's dinner, most likely a vegetarian dish or a fresh homemade salad. The only meat we have been eating at home is fish and occasionally some chicken. But mostly, I have been eating vegetarian dishes and salad. At first it was hard, now I like the taste of vegetables even when they are raw. I have been snacking raw cherry tomatoes from our garden which I would have never considered as a snack before. So, I am a changed man and I believe not having the job related stress plays a big part in what I choose to eat now. When someone is stressed and tired, they tend to grab comfort foods which may not be good for them.
I went from eating hamburgers and other high calorie food to eating edamame with green tea, Japanese pickles with rice, and cabbage pancake for lunch. I know some of this food may look boring (it was to me before) but it's really tasty and good for health. I can see my triglycerides melting away.
The last risk factor for me is lack of exercise. When I was working, the only exercise I got was walking to cafeteria or an occasional walk around the building. Now, I have started to go for regular walks almost everyday. I would walk for about 2 miles or more daily and do stretches at home to keep my back in shape. I used to have regular lower back pain when I was working, now I hardly have a back pain.
In two months since I left my job, I have lost weight, my migraines have gone away, my back pain has disappeared, and I look thinner and younger than before. Sure I had to make some big lifestyle changes, but they are much easier to stick to when you don't have the work related stress and exhaustion. I have essentially removed the biggest risk factor from my life and that was my stressful job.