Heart disease – including kill blood pressure, coronary artery disease, heart attack, heart failure and stroke – claims the life of one Australian every 28 minutes. That makes it the it the leading cause of death in our country.
The good news, however, is that heart disease can largely be prevented by making simple lifestyle changes. While factors such as age, gender, ethnic background and family history can’t be changed, there are plenty of small things you can do to reduce their risk of heart disease and keep their heart healthy.
Bill Stavreski, general manager of the Heart Foundation, told Starts at 60 that knowing the heart disease risk factors you can change and adjusting your lifestyle to make those changes is key to protecting yourself from heart disease.
Being smoke-free is one of the most important changes you can make to help your heart, as is managing your cholesterol levels. If you have high blood pressure, managing this condition is also important.
“You wouldn’t feel any signs or symptoms if you have high cholesterol or high blood pressure,” Stavreski said. “Just because you can’t feel it, doesn’t mean there’s an underlying condition.”
Having a high cholesterol level 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, as people with diabetes have a higher risk of heart disease.
Talking to a GP about managing cholesterol and blood pressure is vital and it’s important follow up with regular check-ups and to keep medication up.
Being inactive and overweight are also major risk factors for heart disease, so exercise and diet have a big role to play in keeping your heart healthy. Older Australians may have physical limitations that mean they can’t exercise as much as they used to but the message from the Heart Foundation is that some exercise is better than none at all.
Stavreski said there were plenty of studies that proved any increase in activity levels was beneficial.
“That is also just as important for people over 60, as what it might be for a 20-year-old or 30-year-old,” he explained.
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,” Stavreski advised. “You can build up activity in shorter bouts, like in three 10-minute walks.”
Muscle-toning exercises – push-ups, squats, lunges, tasks involving lifting and carrying and resistance training – should be done twice a week, he adds.
“This is the minimum you need for health benefits. Longer times and more days of the week are even better,” Stavreski said.
There are particular foods and nutrients that are important for heart health but Stavreski advised focusing on keeping your diet healthy overall rather than obsessing about specific items.
“Rather than worrying about low fat or low sugar, aim instead to include a variety of healthy foods regularly each day,” Stavreski said.
Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are important, as are healthy protein sources from fish, seafood, lean meat, poultry, legumes, nuts and seeds. 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; 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 said. In short, you should cut down on chips, biscuits, pastries, sugary drinks, take-away foods and lollies and up your fruits, vegies, proteins and healthy fats.
There are a number of heart attack symptoms to be aware of, because no two heart attacks are the same.
“Some people might experience five or six different signs, some might experience one,” Stavreski said.
You may experience chest pain, heaviness, tightness, pressure or a crushing sensation in the centre of the chest that can cause discomfort. Pain in your jaw, back, neck, shoulder or arm are other common heart attack symptoms.
The same goes for shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness or breaking out in a cold sweat. It’s important to see medical attention without delay if you experience any of these symptoms.
You can use the FAST test to recognise common signs of a stroke. Check whether your face (F) has drooped, you can’t lift one or both arms (A), you have slurred speech (S) or trouble speaking. If so, time (T) is critical so act fast and seek medical attention.
Stavreski said that although there’s evidence that grief or a shock can bring on a heart attack, that won’t happen without other risk factors being present.
“It’s not the case that someone turns 60 and suddenly their arteries start getting clogged,” he added.
This means a person would need either a full or close to full blockage of the arteries in order to be at severe risk of a heart or angina attack – a type of chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart. Years of unhealthy eating and lack of exercise, especially when combined with other risk factors, cause the arteries to become blocked.
“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,” Stavreski concluded.
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