How to prevent heart disease and live a healthier life
1 in 4 of us in Australia will die from heart disease. But by taking better care of our hearts with some easy-to-adopt, healthy habits, we can prevent heart disease.
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) — which includes conditions such as stroke, heart disease and diseases of the blood vessels — is one of Australia’s most common health problems, affecting 1 in 6 Aussies. But in many cases it’s reversible, and even entirely preventable by making some changes to your lifestyle.
For example, if you’re overweight – or carrying too much fat around your waist – losing just a little weight can improve your heart health. A loss of as little as 5% of body weight can improve your blood pressure and blood sugar, lowering your risk of CVD.
“The good news is that modern medicine is diagnosing heart disease earlier than previously and providing better outcomes,” says Dr Terri-Lynne South, Medical Director at Lifestyle Metabolic.
While men are 40% more likely than women to die from CVD, women are still at risk. But this can often be prevented with healthy choices and lifestyle changes.
“Research has shown that women who maintain a healthy weight, eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and do not smoke are 84% less likely to experience clinical heart-related events than women who don’t do these things. It’s never too late to change your lifestyle to reduce your risk of CVD,” according to Dr South.
The link between weight gain and heart disease
An inactive lifestyle and weight gain often go hand-in-hand. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2 in 3 Australians are overweight. Staying within a healthy weight range in the first place is one of the best preventions for heart disease, and this is something that many of us can control.
“The younger you start, the better,” says Dr South. “When you’re young it’s easier to avoid the risk of weight gain. Excess body weight in adults is often associated with significant life change and events, like being less physically active as we leave school or university and join the workforce. For women, becoming a parent is often a time associated with weight gain. Being more mindful of these risky times and placing a higher priority on avoiding weight gain in the first place is better – and easier – than trying to reverse the consequences.”
A physically active lifestyle can lower your risk of heart disease
Your lifestyle choices can make the difference between being at high risk of CVD and keeping your heart healthy. The first step towards better heart health is understanding what your risk factors are, and how they affect your long-term health.
“Health professionals often talk about heart health risk factors, but having 2 or more risk factors for heart disease is so much worse than only 1,” says Dr South. “The risk factors don’t just add up, they multiply.”
Leading an active lifestyle can help manage or prevent multiple risk factors for heart disease. It can lower blood pressure, decrease insulin resistance (associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes), counter stress, improve sleep, and reduce blood fats like cholesterol and triglycerides (a type of fat, known as a lipid, found in your blood).
“Being more active doesn’t have to mean going to the gym,” says Dr South. “Getting more steps in your day – even just 1,000 more than usual – will make a difference. This could be as simple as walking to the bus stop, taking the stairs instead of a lift or escalator, or going for a 20-minute stroll at lunch or after dinner.”
Managing the risk factors leading to heart disease
There are some risk factors for CVD that you can’t control, like your age or family history of heart disease. But focussing on what can make a difference to your heart health is key. To help protect your heart, The Heart Foundation recommends that you:
- stop smoking
- follow a healthy eating pattern
- be more physically active
- lower and manage your cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar
- maintain a healthy weight
- lower your stress levels.
It’s also important to know that women who are at a greater risk of developing heart disease are those with:
- polycystic ovary syndrome
- premature menopause
- some cancer treatments
- pregnancy complications
- autoimmune conditions and their treatments.
How does your diet affect your heart?
Over the past few decades diet-related heart problems have become more common, in part because we’re eating higher levels of salt, saturated fat, sugar, processed foods and junk foods.
“Nutrition plays a very important role in heart health,” says Deepti Khatri, an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) and one of the personal health coaches who helps run The COACH Program® at HCF. To help those who take part in the program be their healthiest selves, we give eligible members* with heart conditions or diabetes access to The COACH Program at no extra cost.
“Poor diet is one of the leading risk factors for heart disease in Australia, which is why one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease is to eat a heart-healthy diet. This means consuming a variety of healthy foods from the 5 food groups.”
Saturated fat is one of the main villains in the fight against CVD. Fats found in processed meats, full-fat dairy products and many takeaway foods increase our levels of LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol, which is strongly associated with heart disease.
On the other hand, unsaturated fats (also called monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) help reduce LDL cholesterol and increase HDL (‘good’) cholesterol. Healthier fats are found in olives, avocados, nuts, salmon and tuna.
“Try to include 2 to 3 portions of oily fish like salmon, tuna or sardines per week,” says Deepti. “These are high in omega 3 oils, which help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. Aim for 5 serves of vegetables and 2 serves of fruit per day. They’re an excellent source of antioxidants, which help prevent heart disease, and they’re also a great source of soluble fibre, which helps reduce LDL cholesterol.”
Also, try to eat less salt. Around 70% of the salt in our diet comes from processed foods like bread, breakfast cereals, canned vegetables and sauces.
“High salt intake can increase high blood pressure and lead to increased risk of heart disease and stroke,” says Deepti. “Try to avoid adding salt to food and instead use herbs and spices to season your meals when cooking.”
Smoking and heart health
Major smoking-related health conditions include cancer, lung disease and – you guessed it – heart disease. While the daily smoking rate for Australians aged 18 and over has dropped from 20% in 2001 to 10.7% in 2021, latest figures show that smoking still accounts for 50 preventable deaths every day. According to research by Better Health Victoria, if you smoke, you’re 4 times more likely to die of heart disease.
“Smoking can be one of the hardest addictions to kick,” says Dr South. “But the benefits of quitting smoking for your heart health will begin to appear after only a few months – and you can reach that of a non-smoker in several years, even among older adults.”
Deepti’s tips on eating for better heart health
Breakfast: Rolled oats are high in soluble fibre, which can help lower LDL cholesterol. Start the day with porridge or natural untoasted muesli, with low-fat milk and fresh fruit.
Snacks: Keep the fruit bowl filled for fast, nutritious treats. Keep chopped cucumber, carrot, celery and capsicum in the fridge and pair with a tablespoon of all-natural nut spread or hummus for a nourishing snack.
Lunch: If you can, cook extra for your evening meal so you can have leftovers for a healthy lunch. Load up your plate with steamed vegetables or salad – they’re low in kilojoules, high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and full of dietary fibre to help you feel fuller for longer.
Dinner: Try to have a meal plan for the week so you’re less likely to fall back on takeaways. Choose lean cuts of meat and remove any fat (and the skin from poultry) before cooking to stop the meat absorbing it. Cook in bulk to save time. Soups, stews and casseroles are all easy to cook in bulk and then freeze in portions for later use.
See your doctor if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms – they could be a sign of an underlying heart health risk factor:
- chest pain
- unusual shortness of breath when you’re exerted or exercising
- unusual tiredness.
Words by Sara Mulcahy
First Published February 2022
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*To be eligible, members must have had a heart-related condition or diabetes and have had hospital cover that includes heart conditions and vascular system for at least 12 months. Excludes members who only have risk factors for heart disease and members with these covers: Ambulance Only, Accident Only Basic cover and Overseas Visitors Health Cover.