Heart disease is the number one cause of death worldwide – currently over one million Australians are living with heart disease, stroke or vascular conditions. But by making a few healthy lifestyle changes, and ensuring you get regular heart health check-ups, you can significantly lower your risk. Here are the risks to look out for and what you can do to prevent it.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease is the overarching term for any condition that affects your heart. This includes blood vessel diseases, such as coronary artery disease; heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias); and heart defects you’re born with (congenital heart defects), among others.
The term ‘heart disease’ is often used interchangeably with the term ‘cardiovascular disease’. Cardiovascular disease generally refers to conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, chest pain (angina) or stroke. It's an umbrella term that includes heart disease, stroke and blood vessel disease. Heart disease is a category of cardiovascular disease and refers to a variety of conditions that affect the heart’s structure and function.
Other heart conditions that affect your heart’s muscle, valves or rhythm are also considered forms of heart disease.
There’s no one single cause for heart disease – it can be triggered by several factors, some of which are out of your control such as age, gender, ethnicity and family history. It often occurs earlier and more frequently in men than women, but there are lifestyle risk factors that increase your chance of developing it. The more risk factors you have – such as being overweight, smoking, eating an unhealthy diet, etc. – the more likely you are to develop heart disease. More than two-thirds of Australian adults have three or more risk factors for heart disease. Yet many don’t even know they’re at risk.
But the good news is, despite its widespread prevalence, there are easy steps you can take to reduce your risk. Most heart attacks and strokes can be prevented with healthy lifestyle choices, so providing you follow a heart-healthy diet, exercise frequently, watch your alcohol intake, and quit smoking, you are significantly lowering your risk.
What are the risks of heart disease?
Although heart disease is a common illness, once you’re aware of the risk factors, you can make conscious steps to keep your hearth healthy, and protect yourself from developing heart conditions later in life.
These are the risk factors to be aware of:
Eating an unhealthy diet
The types of foods you eat and how much not only affects your heart health, it can also impact other risk factors for heart disease, such as your cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes and weight. If you eat a diet rich in unhealthy fats, salt and sugar, then you are putting yourself at risk of high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and being overweight, all of which are leading causes of heart disease.
To reduce your risk of heart disease, ensure you are eating a heart-healthy diet that’s low in unhealthy fats, salt and added sugar, and rich in wholegrains, fibre, vitamins, antioxidants and healthy fats. Stock up on a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and healthy protein sources, including fish and seafood, lean meat, poultry, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Try to limit your salt intake, eating too much increases your blood pressure and puts your heart at risk of cardiovascular illness.
Not exercising enough
Did you know that over 80 per cent of Australians don’t exercise enough? People who don’t exercise increase their risk of developing heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. Regular exercise helps to maintain a healthy weight, reduces blood pressure and cholesterol, manages stress and keeps your heart strong. You’re twice as likely to develop heart disease if you don’t exercise. So get moving!
Here are some motivational fitness tips to get your started.
Excess weight can put a huge strain on your heart by increasing your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. That means your heart has to work harder to pump blood through your body and as a result, builds up fat in your arteries. This can increase your risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Stick to a heart-healthy diet (see above) and avoid any unhealthy fats, sugar and salt. Salt can increase your blood pressure, so be sure to limit your intake to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Aim for a waist size of less than 80cm for women and 94cm for men. Losing weight can be hard, so start by slowly changing your eating habits and making the effort to be more active, then gradually build up from there.
Drinking too much alcohol can out a huge strain on your heart, and increase your chances of developing heart disease. Drinking excessively for long periods of time can increase your heart rate, blood pressure, weaken your heart muscle and increase the level of some fats in your blood (triglycerides).
Limit yourself to no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day.
Smoking doubles your risk of heart disease, and triples your chances of dying from a heart attack. Even if you’ve smoked for years, it’s never too late to make changes and reverse the damage. Within 20 minutes of quitting, your blood pressure will decrease and your heart rate will slow to a normal rate.
Easier said than done – stress can be unpredictable and extremely difficult to manage – but continuous stress can contribute to a number of health issues. When you’re under emotional stress, your body releases cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones make your heart beat faster and narrow your blood vessels to prepare your body for a fight or flight response.
When you’re constantly exposed to stress hormones, this can cause damage to your artery walls and raise your blood pressure, putting further strain on your heart and making you more at risk of a heart attack.
If you can, try to practice some relaxation techniques to help lower your stress levels. Do something that takes your mind away from the stress – take a walk, read a book, do an exercise class, go for a massage, or simply meditate and embrace the calm. Here are some mindfulness exercises that could help.
If you find that your stress really starts to spiral out of your control, there are plenty of places to get support. Visit your GP who will be able to refer you for further counselling, or there are charities like Beyond Blue who provide free information and support.
Other risk factors to bear in mind
There are a number of factors that can put you more at risk which are out of your control, such as:
- If you’re female – complications can arise during pregnancy such as high blood pressure, or preeclampsia and gestational diabetes. These can increase a woman’s risk of heart disease later in life. Women are also more at risk of heart disease following menopause.
- Your family history – if you have a close family member (such as a parent or sibling) who has had a heart attack or stroke before the age of 60, you are at increased risk of heart disease.
- Your ethnic background – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are twice as likely to die from heart disease compared to non-Indigenous Australian.
- Your social environment – people living in low socioeconomic areas are at higher risk of having a heart attack or dying due to heart disease.
If any of the above apply to you, it’s even more important to make efforts to change your lifestyle habits to help reduce your chances of developing heart disease later in life.
What are the symptoms of heart disease?
With heart disease, often, there are no symptoms. A heart attack or stroke may be the first sign of underlying disease. And if you do experience symptoms, they will entirely depend on what type of heart disease you have.
Here are some common warning signs that you shouldn’t ignore.
Symptoms of a heart attack:
- chest discomfort or pain (angina). This can feel like uncomfortable pressure, aching, numbness, squeezing, fullness or pain in your chest. This discomfort can spread to your arms, neck, jaw or back, and can last for several minutes or come and go
- dizziness, light-headedness, feeling faint or feeling anxious
- nausea, indigestion, vomiting
- shortness of breath or difficulty breathing – with or without chest discomfort
- sweating or a cold sweat
Download a Heart Attack Warning Signs Action Plan from heartfoundation.org.au
Symptoms of a stroke:
The most common symptom of a stroke is sudden weakness of the face, arm, or leg, most often on one side of the body.
Other symptoms can also include:
- numbness in the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body
- confusion, difficulty speaking or understanding speech
- difficulty seeing with one or both eyes
- difficulty walking, dizziness and/or loss of balance or coordination
- severe headache with no known cause; and/or fainting or unconsciousness
People experiencing any of these symptoms should seek medical care immediately.
How is heart disease detected?
Heart Health Checks are available through Medicare, and are free at practices that bulk bill. It’s recommended that anyone 45 years and over, or 30 years and older if you are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander decent, should book a Heart Health check annually with their GP.
One fifth of Australians aged 45–74 years have a high chance of having a heart attack or stroke in the next five years, so early detection is key at preventing the onset of any cardiovascular illness.
What to expect in your heart health check
Your GP or nurse will check your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and they’ll also discuss your family history and lifestyle, to further assess your risk. As we’ve already said, these factors can all play a big part. They’ll most likely ask you about your diet, how much you exercise, if you smoke or drink alcohol, your weight, and your medical and family history.
You can also monitor your heart health yourself using an at-home blood pressure monitor.
Or you can also use a Pulse Oximeter to measure your oxygen saturation and pulse rate.
Your GP will then assess your risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next five years. If you are at risk, they will develop a plan to help you improve your lifestyle and heart health.
You can also take supplements to boost your heart health naturally. Here are our pharmacist recommendations:
Blackmores CoQ10 150mg Heart Health 30 Capsules
Eagle Ubiquinol Bio Q10 150 30 Capsules
BioCeuticals CardioNutrients Forte 60 Capsules
Arborvitae Health & Wellbeing Supplement 1L
For more advice, you can call The Heart Foundation Helpline
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