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Heart disease: lower your risk

In 2015, nearly 20,000 Australians died from heart disease. Here’s how you can be proactive about your heart health.

Sophia Auld
December 2017

Heart disease remains the single leading cause of death in Australia. But what is it and what can you do to reduce your risk?

Types of heart disease

Coronary heart disease is the most common form of heart disease. It causes angina (cardiac-related chest pain) and heart attacks, and accounted for 12% of Australian deaths in 2015.

Other types of heart disease include:

  • congenital heart disease
  • arrhythmias (disturbances in the heart’s rhythm)
  • valve disease
  • heart failure (a condition where the heart cannot pump sufficient blood to supply your body’s needs).

And while heart disease rates have fallen from their epidemic numbers of the 1950s and ’60s, they’ve started rising again, according to Professor Bob Graham from the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute.

Who’s most at risk of heart disease?

When it comes to risk factors for developing heart disease, Graham jokes that, “Choosing your parents carefully is very important”, because at least 40% of risk comes from genetics.

Age is also a factor – as you get older, plaque builds up in your heart arteries and your likelihood of developing other heart disease risk factors, such as diabetes, increases.

Gender is another – men are more at risk than women, at least until menopause. Graham explains that women are protected by their female hormones, but “as soon as they become post-menopausal, incidence of heart attacks and problems increases markedly”.

Reducing your risk

There are also risk factors that can be modified. These include:

  • being overweight
  • having type 2 diabetes
  • smoking
  • high cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • sedentary lifestyle
  • unhealthy eating
  • social isolation or depression.

While you can’t change your age or genetics, making positive lifestyle changes can dramatically reduce your heart disease risk. 

Here are the top tips for a healthier heart:

Regular exercise: While not everyone enjoys exercise, the benefits are worth it. “You feel better, you sleep well and it’s very good for you,” Graham says. “I have a sign in my office that says, ‘What fits into your busy schedule better? Exercising for 1 hour a day or being dead 24 hours a day?’”

While Graham’s sign takes a humorous approach, he’s very serious about urging people to exercise. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, like brisk walking, most days of the week. Seek medical advice before starting exercise if you:

  • have a heart condition
  • are a man over 35 or woman over 45
  • are pregnant
  • get chest pain or irregular heartbeat with physical activity
  • smoke
  • are overweight
  • have high cholesterol
  • have high blood pressure.

Manage your weight: The Dietitians Association of Australia recommends eating a variety of foods each day, including plenty of colourful vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean meat and reduced-fat dairy.

Healthy eating: The biggest part of maintaining a healthy weight is a healthy diet. The Heart Foundation has guidelines for heart-healthy eating and drinking, including specific advice on salt, cholesterol, carbohydrates and saturated and trans-fats.

Quit smoking: Smokers are 4 times more likely to die from heart disease. Quitting is the single most important thing you can do to reduce your heart disease risk. Enlist help from your GP, contact Quitline on 13 78 48, or go to the Quit website.

Have a regular check-up: Your GP can monitor you for conditions like high blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes, all of which increase your heart disease risk. Early diagnosis means early management, which reduces the chance of permanent damage to your arteries.

Find support: Maintaining good mental health and social support are important for heart health. Visit Beyond Blue for more information, or call its support service on 1300 224 636.

All this advice may sound overwhelming, but small changes over time add up. Break your goals into achievable steps for the best chance of success. Pick one area to start on and you’ll be on your way to a healthier heart – for life.

Free heart health checks

HCF members with extras cover can access heart health checks at selected HCF branches.

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