Keeping your heart healthy, whatever your age, is one of the most important things you can do for your long-term health. Unfortunately, around one in three of all deaths is caused by cardiovascular disease (CVD), which involves narrowed or hardened blood vessels. Whilst some of this can be caused by things we can’t control, such as our family history or age, the majority of cardiovascular diseases are almost entirely preventable by making small changes and adopting a healthy lifestyle.
- Controllable lifestyle factors such as raised cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking can all contribute to narrow or hardened blood vessels, so keeping them at healthy levels is key to preventing heart disease. Other factors which are related to heart disease include being overweight, excessive stress, too much alcohol and a lack of regular exercise.
- Uncontrollable factors, such as ageing, being male or having a strong family history of early heart disease in close relatives, may increase risk too.
Reducing Your Risk
The good news is that you can dramatically reduce your risks of developing heart disease if you take some simple steps and adopt a healthy lifestyle. This might seem a bit difficult with a busy working life – but even a series of small changes can dramatically reduce your risk.
Some practical changes could include:
- Controlling your blood pressure and cholesterol levels: eating more fibre, choosing low salt/sodium foods, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, choosing wholegrains over white refined carbohydrates (such as pasta, rice and bread), and exercising regularly can all help keep blood pressure and cholesterol at healthy levels.
- Getting checked for diabetes: Around 1 million people in the UK right now are diabetic and don’t know it. Diabetes can greatly increase the risk of developing heart disease, so consider asking your GP to test your blood sugar levels if you haven’t been tested for a while. You should especially speak to your GP if you are aged 45 or over, overweight or inactive or if you feel abnormally thirsty, tired or urinate frequently (particularly at night).
- Staying a healthy weight: Being overweight is one of the most important factors in heart health but unfortunately around 65% of people in the UK are overweight or obese. A simple measure, called the Body Mass Index (BMI), can indicate if you are a healthy weight for your height (you can calculate your own BMI here.) Another simple test is to measure your waist size around the belly button; men with a waist size above 101cm, and women with a waist size above 88cm, are at an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.
- Being more active: Achieving two-and-a-half hours of moderate physical activity each week can reduce your risk of suffering a heart attack by 40 per cent. But you don’t have to run a marathon or work out in the gym for hours on end to get these benefits – any activity which raises your heart rate and leaves you slightly warm and breathless is good for your heart. Try some brisk walking, energetic gardening , running upstairs or taking your kids to the park for a kick-about. You also don’t have to do the two-and-a-half hours in one go – start with small 10-minute bursts of activity and gradually increase your speed and the total amount of time you spend exercising. But always make sure you speak to your GP before you start exercising, particularly if you haven’t exercised regularly for a while.
- Quitting smoking: Smoking is known to raise blood pressure, harden your arteries and make your heart work harder during every beat. Whilst quitting is hard, it is possible – every year, thousands of people successfully give up smoking, and you could be one of them! If you do smoke and want to give up, find out about the help available to support you to quit.
- Moderate your alcohol consumption: If you’re a heavy drinker – aim to cut your drinking back to within safe limits of a maximum of 2-3 units a day for women and 3-4 units for men (and no more than 21 units a week for men and 14 units a week for women).
Living with Heart Disease
Experiencing a heart attack, or even just being told that you are at risk of one, can be extremely scary and, sometimes, life changing. Over the past few decades, evidence has shown that a healthy lifestyle is just as important in recovering from, and living with, heart disease as it is in preventing heart disease from developing in the first place.
If you do have heart disease, or another form of cardiovascular disease, your GP or cardiologist will likely have given you a series of recommendations for how you can lead a healthy lifestyle to support your overall health and wellbeing and reduce the likelihood of it recurring. Some of the most effective things you can do include:
- Being regularly active: Whilst you may be nervous about putting any strain on your body, it is now clear that being regularly active and building the strength of your heart through moderate activity significantly increases quality of life, energy levels, mood and also reduces the risk that any heart disease will worsen. Starting slowly with walking can be a great first step and you can slowly build up the speed and duration of your walks to challenge yourself further. General guidelines are to build up to 30 to 60 minutes of moderate exercise on five to six days of the week, but always speak to a qualified exercise professional or your GP for specific advice and guidance on a suitable exercise programme.
- Quitting smoking: You might think its a bit late to quit now, but actually there is no such thing as ‘too late’ when it comes to quitting. Practical things like writing a plan for when and how you are going to quit, telling others that you are quitting, removing all ashtrays from your house and avoiding those situations that might tempt you to smoke can all help
- Staying a healthy weight: Losing weight if you are overweight can make an immediate difference on heart health and help speed up the rate of recovery from any heart problems. Making simple everyday changes, such as replacing high calorie and refined foods with more fruits, vegetables and wholegrain carbohydrates, and aiming for 1 to 2lbs weight loss each week can help to make weight loss permanent.