Concerned about your risk of a heart attack? Here are 5 ways to improve your heart health

Mar 12, 2022
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Australia – and worldwide. Source: Getty

Concerned about your risk of a heart attack? Here are 5 ways to improve your heart health

Ellie Paige, George Institute for Global Health; Bruce Neal, George Institute for Global Health; Emily Banks, Australian National University, and Jason Wu, George Institute for Global Health

The news of Shane Warne’s untimely death of a suspected heart attack at the age of only 52 years has left many cricket fans reeling.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Australia – and worldwide, including in the United States, where two in ten people who die of heart disease are aged under 65.

Heart disease is highly preventable, so it’s never too early to consider what you can do to improve the health of your heart. Here are five evidence-based ways to do this.

1. Get a heart health check

When someone dies suddenly and unexpectedly of heart disease, people will often say “but they exercised regularly, didn’t smoke and ate well”.

But some of the main risk factors for heart disease – including high blood pressure and high LDL cholesterol – are things you need to have checked by a doctor.

If you’re aged 45 years or older and do not already have heart disease, Australia’s current guidelines recommend having a heart health check by your GP.

A heart health check combines information on your risk factors and estimates how likely you are to develop heart disease in the next five years.

Doctor listens to man's chest with stethoscope.
Medications can reduce the risk of heart disease for some people.

Your GP can use this information to identify whether you need to make lifestyle changes, and whether you would benefit from preventive medications to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol.

Blood pressure– and cholesterol-lowering medications each lower the risk of developing heart disease by around 25%. So if they’re recommended for you, using them long-term is an effective way to reduce your risk.

However, a study using data from 2012 found around 76% of Australians aged 45 to 74 years at high risk of a first-time heart attack or stroke weren’t using these life-saving treatments.

Diabetes is another important cause of heart disease. Your GP will be able to guide you about whether or not you need a check for diabetes.

If you have diabetes, your GP will help to ensure it’s managed well, to reduce your risk of heart disease.

2. Quit smoking

Although Australia has some of the lowest smoking rates in the world, around 11% of Australians still smoke daily.

Smoking damages blood vessels and contributes to the underlying processes that lead to heart disease.

People who are current smokers are around two times as likely to have a heart attack or stroke than people who have never smoked.

A landmark Australian study showed people who smoked died around ten years earlier than people who have never smoked, and up to two-thirds of ongoing smokers died from their habit.

But quitting smoking can reverse these effects. Quitting at any age was found to be beneficial – the earlier the better. In the long term, those who quit before the age of 45 had a similar life expectancy as people who had never smoked.

3. Improve your nutrition

In Australia, poor diet, excess weight and obesity are leading causes of heart disease.

However, many popular diets are not supported by science.

A healthy diet is important for heart health. For most people, small changes to your diet, such as increasing your intake of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains and reducing salt intake, can have large benefits.

For suggestions on healthier alternatives when you’re grocery shopping, try The George Institute’s FoodSwitch app.

4. Cut your salt

On average, Australians consume almost twice the World Health Organization’s recommended daily maximum of 5g salt.

Randomised trials of salt reduction show clear effects on reducing blood pressure, a leading contributor to heart disease.

To reduce your salt intake, you can try reducing the amount of processed foods you eat and cutting down on the amount of salt you add to your food.

Salt substitutes, although not widely available on supermarket shelves, can also play a role. Salt is made up of sodium chloride; salt substitutes involve replacing a portion of the sodium chloride with potassium chloride which acts to lower blood pressure.

Older woman sitting in a chair puts a hand to her chest.
Reducing your salt intake will also reduce your risk of heart disease.

5. Get moving

Physical activity, in addition to being good for the waistline, helps improve cardiac functioning. Studies have linked regular exercise with a lower risk of having a heart attack.

Australian guidelines recommend adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise most days, but even smaller amounts are beneficial.

Any kind of movement is good, so if you are just starting out, choose an activity you like and get moving. The Conversation

Ellie Paige, Senior Research Fellow, George Institute for Global Health; Bruce Neal, Executive Director, George Institute Australia, George Institute for Global Health; Emily Banks, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health, Australian National University, and Jason Wu, , George Institute for Global Health

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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