Business Today

Listen to your heart

Rahul Sachitanand        Print Edition: May 15, 2011

Seventy-hour weeks, poor diet and stress-filled days with little time to work out, are leading to a spike in cardiac ailments among Indians. The cardiac arrest-related deaths of top corporates such as SAP's India head Ranjan Das, Reliance Industries' R. Ravimohan and, in early April, Future Retail's Raghu Pillai, are worrying examples of this growing problem. Even when obvious symptoms such as chest pain, tingling in the left arm and breathlessness arise, hard-charging executives tend to ignore or downplay them - at their own peril. In fact, multiple estimates reckon that by 2020, cardiovascular diseases will be the single largest cause of death and disability in India. If you are a high-flier and one step from becoming the CEO, if you have passed your 45th birthday and don't get your heart rate up for 20 minutes every day, you want to read on.

Silent killer

Indians are genetically more prone to heart ailments

2. Smoking, poor diet and high stress levels are the biggest causes of heart disease

3. Busy executives don't heed warning signs such as rising cholesterol or blood pressure levels

4. Insufficient sleep is quickly becoming a major contributing factor to rising cardiac ailments

5. A dietary overhaul, especially the elimination of fat-rich fried foods helps, but regular balanced meals are the key
Dr Amar Singhal, Senior Consultant, Cardiology, Sri Balaji Action Medical Institute, Delhi, receives at least two or three walk-ins from the corporate sector every day with symptoms of a serious cardiac ailment. His youngest patient was a 22-year -old executive who came in with crippling chest pain (he was a chain smoker) and after some routine tests was discovered to have a 100 per cent blockage of some cardiac arteries - requiring emergency surgery to fix. "Executives eat foods full of saturated fats, they eat at irregular hours and seem to have no greens, fresh fruit or vegetables in their diet," he says. Dr Singhal recommends a drastic change in diet, increased consumption of fluids (fresh fruit juices rather than Coke) and regular meals - as much as possible. "Come in early if you have some obvious symptoms," he warns. "Don't wait to be wheeled in on a stretcher."

There are, no doubt, factors other than poor lifestyle choices that can cause heart problems: high cholesterol, escalating hypertension among people as young as 21 and a family history of heart ailments. According to estimates in a paper by the Indian Academy of Sciences, India already has over 40.9 million people with diabetes and 118 million with hypertension or high blood pressure, which could increase to 69.9 million and 213 million by 2025. According to Dr Singhal, an electrocardiogram reading is usually enough to detect obvious heart problems, but more complex scans could also be required.

Rahul Sachitanand
Rahul Sachitanand
"A routine medical exam should be mandatory in organisations," he says. While many companies do offer them to employees, they do not take the results seriously, he adds. Warning signs such as an increase in cholesterol or a rise in blood pressure are often ignored, with people having little time to change their schedules to fix their health. Consider the example of a 30-year-old fast-rising IT manager in Bangalore who blamed the city's traffic and pollution for frequent bouts of breathlessness, despite having dangerously high levels of cholesterol and a junk foodrich diet. Only the classic symptoms of a full-blown heart attack forced the executive to reconsider his plans.

Besides these factors, there are emerging trends that are increasing the incidence of heart disease in India. Stress and the related problem of sleep debt (eight hours of shut-eye is ideal) are only complicating matters. In the case of SAP's Das, for example, an active lifestyle and controlled diet wasn't enough to compensate for the crushing pressure of 70-hour working weeks with little sleep. "People need to pick their battles," says Dr Singhal. "You can't let your work kill you."

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