Coronary artery disease - the disease that causes angina and heart attacks, also known as coronary heart disease - is still one of the main causes of death and disability in Australia. While there are some risk factors, such as age and family history, that can’t be changed, there are several other risk factors that can be modified to help keep your heart healthy as you get older.
A healthy lifestyle (i.e. not smoking; eating a low-fat, balanced diet; exercising; and maintaining a healthy weight) can protect your heart and keep you feeling and looking better for longer. And what’s more, making some positive lifestyle changes can stabilise heart disease in those who already have it and reduce the risk of further heart problems. Here are some steps to protect your heart.
Smoking is not only a major cause of coronary heart disease, but also increases your risk of sudden cardiac death. Of all the risk factors for heart disease, smoking is the most dangerous, increasing risk by 2-6 times.
If you are a smoker, quitting is the most important step you can take to reduce your risk of heart disease. In fact, your risk drops dramatically just 12 months after quitting.
If you have high blood pressure (also known as hypertension), you are twice as likely to have a heart attack as someone with normal blood pressure. And because there are often no symptoms associated with mild-to-moderate high blood pressure, it’s important to have regular blood pressure checks to ensure that you are not at risk without knowing it.
Fortunately, there are several lifestyle alterations that can help lower blood pressure, including losing any excess body weight, exercising, reducing salt in your diet, limiting alcohol and stopping smoking. You may also need to take a blood pressure-lowering medicine in addition to these lifestyle modifications.
Most people know that a high cholesterol level is bad for them. This is because high levels of cholesterol — a fat-like substance in the blood — more than double your risk of coronary heart disease. One type of cholesterol called LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol is also known as 'bad' cholesterol because it is especially dangerous for your heart.
A healthy diet and exercise are both important in keeping your cholesterol levels in check. You can lower your LDL cholesterol level by reducing the amount of saturated fat and trans fat in your diet. Eating plenty of soluble fibre, fruit and vegetables and exercising regularly can also help control your cholesterol.
There are medicines available that can reduce your cholesterol level if lifestyle modifications have not had a significant impact. The cholesterol-lowering medicines known as statins have been shown to offer excellent protection from cardiovascular disease. But remember, it's still important to eat a healthy diet to reduce your cholesterol and keep it down. Cholesterol-lowering medicines are not designed to allow you to eat whatever you want without any consequences!
A sedentary lifestyle nearly doubles your risk of developing coronary artery disease, making it almost as dangerous as smoking, high cholesterol or high blood pressure.
The good news is that even moderate-intensity physical activity, which includes everyday activities like gardening and housework, can reduce your risk. But the best exercise for your heart is aerobic exercise. That’s because it can help control your cholesterol levels, as well as reduce blood pressure, body fat and mental stress. Combining exercise with other lifestyle measures, such as maintaining a healthy weight, is even better protection for your heart.
Try to get in at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most (if not all) days of the week. You can make up your 30 minutes in bouts of 10 minutes or more if that’s more convenient. And remember, it’s never too late - even if you’ve already had a heart attack, exercise can reduce your chances of having another one. However, it’s important to always check with your doctor before you start exercising to ensure that the activity is suitable for your current level of fitness.
Saturated fat and trans fat (also called trans-fatty acids) are 2 types of fat that not only contribute to weight gain, but also raise your blood cholesterol. So you should avoid, or at least cut down on, foods that contain these fats, including:
As well as reducing the amount of saturated and trans fat in your diet, it's a good idea to reduce refined carbohydrates (e.g. white bread, white rice), highly salty foods and foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients.
A diet that contains a wide variety of foods, including plenty of fruit, vegetables and whole grains can reduce your risk of heart disease, so aim for at least 5 servings of vegies and 2 of fruit every day. Omega-3 fatty acids, found naturally in seafood, can also reduce your risk of heart disease, so try to include oily fish or other seafood in your diet 2-3 times a week.
Some studies suggest drinking moderate amounts of alcohol also has beneficial effects for your heart, by increasing HDL cholesterol (also known as high density lipoprotein or 'good' cholesterol because it helps reduce your risk of heart disease). The heart-protective effects seem to be more strongly associated with red wine than other forms of alcohol, possibly because of the presence of antioxidants called flavonoids in red wine. But it's a fine line, because having too much alcohol can increase your blood pressure and cause other health problems. You should aim for no more than 2 standard drinks a day.
Being overweight not only increases your chances of having high blood cholesterol levels, diabetes and high blood pressure, but it’s also an independent risk factor for heart disease. So even if you’re otherwise healthy, being overweight means you are more likely to develop heart disease.
As well as your overall weight, the distribution of your body fat is important in determining your risk. Body fat stored around your waist is associated with a higher risk than fat that is stored around the hips and thighs.
Maintaining a healthy body weight can reduce your risk of heart disease by 35-55 per cent. And even a small amount of weight loss can be beneficial if you’re overweight — by losing just 10 per cent of your body weight, you can help lower your blood pressure, cholesterol and risk of developing diabetes.
Psychological and social factors, including depression, social isolation and lack of quality support, have also been found to increase the risk of heart disease. In fact, the risk from these psychological factors is similar to that with better known risk factors such as smoking, raised cholesterol and high blood pressure. Depression can be treated with non-medical therapies and with medicines. If you think that you have depression, talk with your health professional.
So lifestyle changes can go a long way to protecting your heart as you grow older. And remember, it’s never too late to stop smoking, change your diet or get active.
Last Reviewed: 03 November 2010