When it comes to heart health, many men tend to adopt a “macho approach.”
“A lot of men think, ‘It can’t be any heart problem. That can’t be any issue for me,’ pretending they are going to be a tough guy,” said Dr. Robert Hendel, professor of medicine and radiology and associate chief of clinical cardiology at University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. “But if someone has chest pain or shortness of breath, they should get checked out.”
Indeed, chest pain and shortness of breath are the first signs of a heart problem in men. Studies show that erectile dysfunction also may be one of the earliest signs of heart disease. When there is build up of plaque in the body, the smaller arteries — such as the ones in the penis — are the first to be affected, reducing blood flow.
“You have to be concerned that if there’s vascular disease in erectile dysfunction, there may be a vascular disease going on somewhere else,” said Dr. Todd Heimowitz, general and interventional cardiologist at the Heart Institute at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach.
In the United States, heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, killing more than 300,000 men in 2009 – or one in every four male deaths, according to the Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Typically, men develop heart disease at a younger age than women. While men in their 50s become more at risk for heart disease, women’s risk increases after menopause.
“Heart disease becomes a significant concern for men in their fifth decade,” Hendel said. “But every decade of life increases the risk of having heart problems.”
The good news is that there are habits that men can adopt to decrease their risk of heart disease. Among those habits:
Diet: “Achieve the right weight,” said Dr. Marc Gillinov, a cardiac surgeon at Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio and co-author of Heart411: The Only Guide to Heart Health You’ll Ever Need. “Look in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘Do I look good? Do I look trim?’ ”
Fad diets in the U.S. often encourage people to cut all fat from their meals — an idea Gillinov said is incorrect as there is “good” and “bad” fat in different foods.
A recent study in Spain showed that 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease could be prevented in people at risk who follow a Mediterranean diet of lean meat and fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and olive oil and a glass of wine.
The findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, were the result of the first major clinical trial to measure the diet’s effect on heart risks.
In the study, about 7,500 people who were overweight, were smokers or had diabetes were chosen at random to follow either a Mediterranean diet or a low-fat diet, which turned out to be like an American diet, with red meat, soda and commercially prepared baked goods. Those on the Mediterranean diet reduced their risk of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease by 30 percent compared with those on the low-fat diet.
“I am a heart surgeon and if I wanted to put myself out of business, and I am going to design a diet, I am going to end up with the Mediterranean diet,” Gillinov said. “You can even make Mediterranean-style pizza. I’ve done it. It tastes great.”