You'll normally do three things to keep your heart healthy: eat nutritious foods, stay active, and quit unhealthy behaviours like smoking. Is there, however, a faster way to give your heart a boost? You'll see ad after ad for natural cures that can mend your heart and help you live longer if you swipe your digital gadget or turn on the TV. But do they actually work?
The clock is ticking. In around 40 seconds, one person in America will die. Most won’t even see it coming. Heart disease affects millions Australians and accounts for 40 per cent of deaths annually. About one and a half million Americans suffer from heart attacks and strokes annually, and cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. On average, one person will die of a stroke in America, pretty grim but frightfully real statistics. The likelihood of contracting heart disease can be aggravated by many different lifestyle factors, such as smoking, alcohol and diet.
There is also a genetic link, says Geoffrey Tofler, Professor of Preventative Cardiology at Sydney University and Royal North Shore Hospital in Australia. “In particular cholesterol levels, a family predisposition to high blood pressure or diabetes, or having a family member who has had a heart attack under the age of 65,” he says. The good news is, while you can’t change your genetic predisposition or age-related factors that can lead to heart disease, you can take steps to control the other factors that can contribute.
Many people are unaware of the symptoms of a heart attack. It’s often not the clutching of the chest and falling to the ground that you see dramatised in movies.
According to The Heart Foundation, heart attack warning signs can be a feeling of pressure, heaviness or tightness in the chest or upper body, such as the neck, jaw, shoulders or back. There can also be shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea and a feeling of being unwell. Because many people don’t know the symptoms, they could be putting themselves at risk, says Assoc Prof Tofler. “They might think it’s not a severe pain so they can overcome it; in fact, it’s a good early warning sign to seek medical intervention,” he says.
Did you know your chronological age (the actual years) and your heart age (fitness level) are two entirely different things? Your heart age can be lower or higher than the number of years you have been on the planet. By making healthy lifestyle and dietary changes to keep your heart healthy, you can reduce your heart age, says Associate Professor Tofler. “You can influence your heart age by addressing lifestyle issues, becoming physically active, pursuing a healthy diet, avoiding excess salt and keeping your blood pressure under control,” he says.
To check out your heart age, visit this link to the website of the World Heart Federation. It has put together an online tool based on the results of 40 years of research. Heart Age Calculator
The increasing problem of poor diet coupled with sedentary lifestyles is one of the reasons heart disease takes pole position as the number one killer in Australia. According to CSIRO researchers, the statistics tell a sobering story. Too many of us (about 60 per cent) are carrying extra kilos, more than half the adult population don’t get enough exercise to gain any benefit, and our lifestyle habits also need a bit of a shake-up.
More than half of us have high blood cholesterol (6.40 million adults), 30 per cent have high blood pressure (3.69 million adults), 20 per cent smoke daily (3.06 million adults), 10 per cent drink at levels considered harmful to health (1.54 million adults) and 8 per cent have diabetes (945,600 adults).
When Chris Russell, agricultural scientist and judge on the ABC TV show New Inventors, had a heart attack at 52, he was gob-smacked. “I suppose I lived under the assumption that I was still immortal based on my fitness levels at 25 or even 35. I was a former rugby player, had been in the military and trained with the commandos and was very fit back then.”
At the time of his heart attack Chris had a busy, high-pressure lifestyle, he didn’t smoke, he was moderately overweight and his cholesterol and blood pressure were a little high. Chris was out boating on the Hawkesbury River and accidentally fell overboard into freezing cold water. The shock of the cold water caused a chunk of artery that had become hardened to shrink; a piece of the wall broke off and completely blocked his main right coronary artery.
He lived to tell the tale thanks to quick thinking by his wife, who is a trained nurse, and cutting-edge technology that was being trialled at the time. Ambulance officers were able to use a type of “fax machine” to send ahead results of his ECG, allowing the emergency team at the hospital to be on standby. Chris does not take for granted the second chance he’s had at life. These days he has adopted a healthy eating regime, consults regularly with a nutritionist, aims to exercise for an hour each day and regularly monitors his weight and cholesterol levels. Do you know your waist circumference? How about your cholesterol levels or blood pressure? When is the last time you stepped on the scales? If you’re shaking your head and wondering about any or all of the above you’re not taking control of your heart age. And if you don’t know what a healthy weight range is or what your cholesterol levels should be, a trip to your GP for a health assessment is a great place to start.
One of the best ways to take years off your heart age is to adopt a healthy diet, says Associate Professor Manny Noakes, Senior Research Scientist and Dietitian with CSIRO. Lifestyle choices such as eating a well-balanced, healthy diet make a dramatic difference to your heart age, she says. Dr Noakes co-authored The CSIRO Healthy Heart Program and says heart health is a serious matter.
“From the age of 40, the lifetime risk for coronary heart disease is one in two for men and one in three for women,” she says. “A large proportion of the population have known risk factors and many have more than one. This includes high cholesterol and excess weight, increased blood pressure and high levels of blood glucose. The cumulative impact of these risk factors over time can be damaging to your heart,” she says. Assoc Prof Noakes says choosing healthy fats — unsaturated fats instead of saturated and trans fats — in your diet can help to reduce your risk of heart disease. If your cholesterol levels are high, the inclusion of plant sterols in your diet can lower cholesterol by as much as 10 per cent. These foods should be eaten in conjunction with low-fat dairy products.
Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and fish containing omega-3 fats, which are healthy for the heart and help to maintain heart rhythm, says Associate Professor Noakes. “Darker fish generally contain more of the healthy fats, including Atlantic salmon, sardines and mackerel,” she says.
To reduce your heart numbers and improve your heart health, try the following:
You can take years off your heart age by giving up cigarettes. They are not only chock full of carcinogenic substances that cause genetic mutations to cells, creating cancers of the mouth, lungs, bladder, pancreas and oesophagus but the effects of smoking on your heart can be equally devastating. Nicotine raises blood pressure. Carbon monoxide reduces levels of oxygen reaching tissues and allows the build-up of harmful cholesterol deposits on artery walls. So if you do smoke, the best thing you can do for your heart is to quit.
One good way to reduce your heart age is to reduce the stressors in your life. Concentrate on doing one thing at a time and delegate if you feel you are becoming overwhelmed. Manage your energy wisely by prioritizing what you need to do. Of course, some things can’t be changed. There will always be stressful situations but you can change how you manage your response to stress. Learn to breathe deeply. Take time out when you need it.
Getting connected with others can also reduce your heart numbers. In a 19-year study by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, women who reported feeling lonely most of the time had a 76 per cent increased risk of heart disease. This is because loneliness, like stress, may trigger inflammatory and hormonal changes that promote cardiovascular disease.
Get moving. Want to reduce your heart age even further? Well, if you’re a couch potato, you need to get moving! Find an activity you enjoy, find someone to do it with, set yourself a goal and make it part of your day. Mix it up and do things that will keep you motivated and enjoying the benefits. If walking isn’t your thing, try something else. Learn to play tennis, take up kayaking or go bike riding with the kids or a friend.
According to the World Health Organization, doing more than 150 minutes of moderate activity or 60 minutes of vigorous activity each week reduces your risk of coronary heart disease by about 30 per cent. This is because exercise reduces cholesterol levels, lessens the tendency of the blood to clot and also helps lower blood pressure, says Assoc Prof Tofler.
Another great way to lower your heart age is to watch what you eat, according to countless studies. Researchers in the United States at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, conducted a study in which participants were taught to identify, select, and prepare healthy foods. Both men and women in the trial lowered their subsequent risk of cardiovascular disease by 25 per cent more than 10 years after the trial ended.
There have been some claims in recent years about the benefits of red wine, coffee and chocolate on heart health. However, according to National Director of Healthy Weight at the heart foundation, Susan Anderson, “Coffee, chocolate and red wine are OK as part of a balanced diet, but if you are consuming them thinking you’re reducing your risk of heart disease, then think again.” There is also a popular myth that if you aren’t overweight you’re not at risk of heart disease. A surprising truth is that people who are overweight but physically active have a lower risk of heart disease than those who are sedentary. This is because of physiological mechanisms of exercise that could be related to the effect of the blood fats that circulate in the body, says Assoc Prof Noakes.
“There are blood fats such as LDL cholesterol (bad fats) that increase the build-up on the artery walls, and there are blood fats called HDL cholesterol (good fats) that remove some of that build-up,” she explains. “Exercise increases HDL cholesterol, so it may be beneficial.”
When’s the last time you laughed out loud? Laugher raises your endorphins, is a great stress buster and, according to new research, can also promote a healthy heart. Cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center discovered laughter protects the heart. It relieves mental stress, which is associated with impairment of the endothelium, the protective barrier lining blood vessels. This may cause a series of inflammatory reactions that lead to fat and cholesterol build-up in the coronary arteries and ultimately to a heart attack.
Did you know that brushing your pearly whites is also good for your heart? Poor oral hygiene can lead to a 70 per cent increased risk of heart disease, according to a 2010 Scottish study published in the British Medical Journal. The study analysed data from 11,000 participants. It’s thought that lack of brushing can lead to constant low-level gum infections, which researchers think could cause inflammation in the body and play a part in causing heart disease.