Monday, 22 February 2016 11:00:00 AM Australia/Melbourne

Heart disease is the single biggest killer of Australians. Yet if we all took time to better understand the risks, we may all have a better chance at preventing it.

While there is no one cause of heart disease, there are a number of risk factors – and the more risk factors you have, the greater the chance of a heart attack or stroke. In many cases, heart disease shows no visible symptoms, and it may be too late before faced with the consequences.

All too often we pay lip service to the need to live a healthy life and improve our health and well being – yet if we just made one small change today, then it might put us one step closer to leading a long and healthy life. So time to revisit the basic risk factors and see what you could be doing to minimise your risk of heart attack or stroke.

Of course the absolute best thing you can do is visit your doctor for a heart health check. The Australian Heart Foundation recommends having a heart health check if you’re over 45 years old, and over 35 years for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Risks outside your control

Your age
The older you get, the greater your risk of heart disease.

Your gender
During the first stages of life, men have a higher risk of heart disease than women. This changes after menopause, when women’s risk start to equal men.

Your ethnicity
Research shows that people from certain cultures, such as the Indian sub-continent) have higher risk. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have more risk because of lifestyle factors.

Your family history
Heart health is strongly genetically linked, meaning that you risk factor increases if someone in your family has had a heart attack or stroke, It is always best to speak to your doctor or healthcare professional to discuss your family health history and review the risks.

Risks you can control

Some of the risk factors are well within your control to change. And let’s face it, there’s nothing new here with regards to healthy habits and lifestyle – but when faced with the consequences of heart attack or stroke, perhaps the benefits of tackling some of these changes will outweigh the effort or difficulties.

Lack of physical activity
It will come as no great surprise that being inactive is not good for your health or your heart. Doing anything to increase your activity can help – and while regular moderate activity is the goal, any physical activity is better than none. So the principle of taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or getting off the bus a block early, all holds true.

It is always better to start with a few simple and achievable steps than joining the gym and never going. The act of accomplishing those small goals will in turn motivate you to continue, and as your activity increases so too will your fitness – making it more and more achievable to set and reach new goals.

In fact, irrespective of your physical activity, research now suggests that spending too much time sitting down is also a major risk. People who spend long periods of time sitting have been found to have higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death from all causes. This was originally thought to be because those people were more likely to be obese. But there is now evidence that even if you’re not overweight, sedentary behaviour can still put you at greater risk.

High cholesterol
Cholesterol is fatty substance that is carried around your body with your blood. Your body produces some cholesterol naturally, and you can also get it from some foods. 

Having high levels of cholesterol in your blood is a risk factor for heart disease, so it’s important to manage your cholesterol. A variety of lifestyle choices can affect blood cholesterol levels similar to heart disease – diet, weight, physical activity, smoking, age and gender.  Many of these can be managed through lifestyle changes. In some instances you may also be prescribed medicine to help you get cholesterol under control.

The best way to find out your cholesterol levels is to have them checked by your doctor. This involves a blood test. Your doctor will explain your results and help you determine the best way to manage your cholesterol.

High blood pressure
We cannot measure or feel our own blood pressure, so it is important to have this regularly checked by your doctor. While our blood pressure naturally changes in response to your heart’s needs depending on what you are doing, blood pressure that remains high over a period of time needs to be addressed.

A blood pressure reading under 120/80mmHg is considered optimal. Readings over 120/80mmHg and up to 139/89mmHg are in the normal to high normal range.

Causes of high blood pressure are not always clear, and although again influenced by lifestyle choices such as physical activity, diet and alcohol consumption, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what cause high blood pressure for one person over another.

Controlling blood pressure is best discussed with your doctor. They may recommend lifestyle changes or prescribe medicine. But regular monitoring is also important, and you may want to consider a simple blood pressure monitor to help you track.

Being overweight
Being overweight or obese increases your risk of heart disease and other health problems. Of course a healthy weight for one person may not be the same for another – so again, talking to your doctor or an accredited dietician is the best place to start.

For those of us who are overweight, the challenge can seem insurmountable but just like exercise, it is better to make some small and simple changes than do nothing at all. Little things can make a big difference and the psychological and physical benefits of losing some excess weight will also help motivate you to stay on track. Fad diets simply do not work – and there is no magic bullet to weight loss. Slow progress is more likely to deliver long term results so avoid getting on the scales every day. Instead focus on how you are feeling and how your clothes are fitting you each month.

Unhealthy diet
Eating a varied diet of healthy foods can help with your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol. And it’s never too late to reintroduce a range of healthy foods back into your diet.

Healthy eating is for the long term. Aim to build habits that promote health, not harm it, as a solid healthy eating foundation. Choose plant-based foods like vegetables and fruit, along with good quality wholegrains, nuts and seeds, and choose good quality meat, poultry, fish, and milk, cheese and yoghurt or alternatives. Choose mainly water to drink. And limit sugary, salty and fatty snacks or takeaway foods to sometimes and in small amounts.

We knew it was coming – being smoke free is one of the best ways to educe your risks of heart disease. Smoking is very bad for your heart. It greatly increases the risk of a heart attack, other types of heart disease and stroke. Smoking affects the vessels that supply blood to your heart and other parts of your body. It reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood and damages blood vessel walls.

The good news is that once you stop smoking, the extra risk is reduced quickly. You can get lots of help to quit. Talk to your doctor or health professional about giving up smoking. Call the Quitline (13 7848) or visit the Quit website.

Depression and social isolation
It is understood people suffering from depression, social isolation or without strong social support are more likely to suffer from heart disease. Depression is more than feeling sad or low. If you feel depressed for more than two weeks, talk to your doctor, a family member or someone you know well. Or contact one of the many organisations designed to offer you support such as Beyond Blue or Lifeline.