There’s no easy way of saying it – cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a major cause of death in Australia and around the world. Each year, 43,477 deaths in Australia are the result of CVD, while one Aussie dies of the disease every two minutes.
CVD is the term giving to the diseases impacting the heart and blood vessels including stroke, coronary heart disease, heart failure, cardiomyopathy, congenital heart disease, peripheral vascular disease. In Australia, coronary heart disease – also known as ischaemic heart disease – is the most common form of heart disease.
While factors such as age, gender, ethnic background and family history can’t be changed, there are plenty of small things people can do to reduce their risk of heart disease and keep their heart healthy.
“Know your modifiable risk factors and make sure you are undertaking the appropriate lifestyle changes to manage these,” Bill Stavreski, General Manager of The Heart Foundation Australia, tells Starts at 60.
Being smoke-free is one of the biggest things people can do to protect their heart and it’s never too late to give up smoking. Similarly, it’s vital that people manage high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
“You wouldn’t feel any signs or symptoms if you have high cholesterol or high blood pressure,” Stavreski says. “Just because you can’t feel it, doesn’t mean there’s an underlying condition.”
An imbalance of cholesterol in the blood is one of the biggest risks of suffering a heart attack or stroke, while high levels of blood pressure over a long period of time can increase the risk of heart disease. Managing diabetes is also a key way of preventing a heart attack or stroke.
Talking to a doctor or GP about managing cholesterol and blood pressure is vital and it’s important follow up with regular check-ups, adhering to medication and other prescribed medication.
Being inactive, overweight and unhealthy are also major risk factors for heart disease, so exercise and diet play a massive role in keeping the heart healthy. Some people in their 60s and beyond have disabilities and physical limitations that prevent them as exercising as much as others, but the message from The Heart Foundation is that any exercise is better than none at all.
“Exercise is important and even any change increase in exercise can have benefits. There’s plenty of studies that prove that,” Stavreski explains. “That is also just as important for people over 60, as what it might be for a 20-year-old or 30-year-old.”
Regular, moderate physical activity improves not only physical and overall heart health, but also mental health. The best part is it’s never too late to start exercising and get the benefits.
“Do 30-45 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity like brisk walking most days of the week. You can build up activity in shorter bouts, like in three 10-minute walks,” Stavreski says.
Muscle-toning activities are also important and can be done twice a week through push-ups, squats, lunges, tasks involving lifting and carrying and other resistant training.
“This is the minimum you need for health benefits. Longer times and more days of the week are even better,” Stavreski says. “No matter how active you are, it’s also important to sit less.”
Like managing many other health issues, a healthy heart is reliant on particular foods and nutrients, as well as the whole eating pattern.
“Rather than worrying about low fat or low sugar, aim instead to include a variety of healthy foods regularly each day,” Stavreski says.
Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are important, while a variety of healthy protein sources from fish, seafood, lean meat, poultry, legumes, nuts and seeds are also vital. When it comes to cheese, milk, yoghurt and other dairy products, try to opt for the unflavoured and unsweetened options.
It’s also important to note that not all fats are bad and nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and their oils for cooking are the healthier fat options to consume. And, instead of seasoning with salt for flavour, try herbs and spices.
“We know that 70 per cent of Australians eat biscuits and cakes daily, while less than 7 per cent eat enough fruit and vegetables,” Stavreski explains.
This means a healthy heart depends on cutting down on chips, biscuits, pastries, sugary drinks, take-away foods and lollies.
When it comes to a heart attack, there are various signs and symptoms to be aware of, particularly because no two heart attacks are the same.
“Some people might experience five or six different signs, some might experience one,” Stavreski says.
People can experience chest pain, heaviness, tightness, pressure or a crushing sensation in the centre of the chest that can cause discomfort. Jaw pain is another common sign and can often be felt in the back, neck, shoulder or arm.
Others will experience a shortness of breath, while others will feel nauseas, dizzy or break out in a cold sweat. If any of these symptoms are experienced, it’s important to seek medical attention without delay, as it could be the difference between life and death.
When it comes to a stroke, the F.A.S.T test is the easiest way to remember the common signs of a stroke. Check to see whether the face as drooped and whether you or your loved one can lift both arms. Speech is important to look out for and someone who has suffered a stroke may find it difficult to understand others or their speech may be slurred. Time is critical when it comes to a stroke and medical attention should be sought as soon as possible.
“Heart attack doesn’t just happen without the risk factors, without a physiological element to it and there is evidence that grief, sudden grief, sudden shock can hasten a heart attack, but it’s not the case that someone turns 60 and suddenly their arteries start getting clogged,” Stavreski says.
This means a person would need either a full or close to full blockage in order to be at severe risk of a heart or angina attack. These blockages occur over the years without healthy diet, exercise and because of other risk factors, which is why it’s important to manage them.
“It’s something that happens over the years, which is why our messaging at the moment is know your risk factors, look at your heart age and make sure you think about key risk factors such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol because they’re what put a lot of stress and strain on your heart.”
For more information and support about managing heart health visit heartfoundation.org.au.
Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and information purposes only. It does not take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. It is not personalised health advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any decisions about your health or changes to medication, diet and exercise routines you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from a medical professional.