Thursday 12 December 2019

15 ways to mind your heart

Heart disease may be the nation’s biggest killer, but with preventative measures, lifestyle changes and regular checks, it can be managed. Our reporter asks the experts what we can do to stave off the disease and mind our heart health

There are measures you can take to stave off heart disease.
There are measures you can take to stave off heart disease.

Vicki Notaro

In Ireland, heart disease is serious business. Obesity is on the rise, many of us lead sedentary lifestyles, eat, drink and be merry to excess, and fail to look after our bodies in the way we know we should. However heart disease can be preventable, even in those with a family history. Diet is the main foundation of a healthy heart, but there are so many other lifestyle and genetic factors to take in to account. Read on, and find out just how to keep your heart as healthy as possible.

1 Heart disease is  Ireland’s number one killer

Around 10,000 people die here every year from cardiovascular disease, according to the Irish Heart Foundation. This includes coronary heart disease, the most common cause of death in Ireland. Shockingly, CVD is responsible for 33pc of all fatalities in this country, with 5,000 from CHD each year.

2 Coronary heart disease  can affect anyone

Although age is a massive factor with heart disease, lifestyle factors and a family history can also play a big part. Dr Robert Kelly, head of cardiology at the Beacon Hospital, says anyone who is a bit worried about the disease should be checked out. “Often heart conditions only get picked up when you have a check up or a medical, when the doctor senses an abnormality and has a closer look. Everyone over 40 should really be getting checked regularly, and anyone whose close family member has had a heart attack.”

3 It’s the biggest risk  to Irish women...

Heart disease and CVD are the biggest killers of Irish women, particularly those who are post-menopausal. According to the Irish Heart Foundation, women tend to fear breast cancer, but the risk is higher with heart disease even though the typical onset is about a decade later than in men. “Irish people in general are worse at presenting with symptoms,” says Dr Kelly. “But at least women talk to one another about their health. If you’re feeling in any way unwell, get checked out.”

4…and very serious in men also

“Heart attacks are the result of a build up of plaque in the arteries, and they’re happening younger and younger, in the 40s and 50s,” says Dr Kelly. “So it’s very important that men are getting checked out, monitored for cholesterol and high blood pressure, and aware of the lifestyle factors that can help reduce their risk of an attack.”

5 Anyone with a family history should be checked out

If a close relative has had a heart attack, has symptoms like shortness of breath or tightness in the chest, it’s important to see a doctor and keep an eye on these things in yourself as you age. “It’s too expensive to screen the whole country,” says Dr Kelly. “But we can pre-screen families at risk; check blood pressure, cholesterol, weight and monitor other factors.” It is possible to identify heart plaque non-invasively, so if you’re concerned, visit a cardiologist.

6 Don’t believe the headlines about the benefits of alcohol

You may see articles from time to time about red wine being good for your heart, but Ann Scanlon of the IHF says there’s not enough evidence in alcohol’s favour to include it as part of a heart healthy lifestyle. “We recommend you stay under the limit of 17 units of alcohol per week for men, and 11 for women. A unit is a half pint of beer, a serving of spirits or a small glass of wine.”

7 Smoking greatly increases the risk of heart disease

According to the IHF, smokers are twice as likely to suffer a heart attack as non-smokers. However, Ann says it’s never too late to stop. “The risk of heart attack is then reduced by half. Risk is greatly reduced by lifestyle changes like quitting smoking.”

8 Drug abuse is also  detrimental to the heart

Using Class A drugs like cocaine and amphetamines is very bad for the heart, but Dr Kelly says that buying pills from the internet to help with slimming can be very dangerous too. “While being a healthy weight is important for good heart health, it’s very important not to use any unregulated slimming medications that could potentially harm the heart.”

9 Stress hurts you in a different way than you might imagine

“Stress isn’t directly responsible for heart disease, but it’s a person’s response to stress that contributes to the risk,” explains Dr Kelly. Ann agrees. “It comes in to play — people who are stressed are more likely to smoke, be less active and eat less healthily. Also, if you are stressed, adrenaline is released which results in an increased heart rate and higher blood pressure.”

10 Exercise is incredibly  important for heart health

Inactivity is damaging to the heart, so we all need to get the organ pumping as much as possible, whatever our ages. The Irish Heart Foundation recommends 150 minutes of exercise that will get your heart rate up and your body sweating each week.

“This can be broken down into ideally five 30-minute exercise sessions each week,” says Ann. “But this doesn’t have to be 30 minutes at a time — you can do 10 minutes in the morning, 20 in the afternoon or three 50-minute sessions”. 

11 Diabetes and high blood  pressure are big contributors

High blood sugar and blood pressure are dangerous when it comes to the heart, as is high cholesterol. A lot of this can be managed with a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet; cutting down on salt, eating less processed foods and sugar, and upping your vegetable intake. However if you have a family history of these conditions, it’s wise to visit your doctor and get checked out, as there may be additional things you can to do help your heart health.

12 Congenital disease must be monitored

If you were born with any kind of heart issue, or have been warned that one may develop over time, it’s really important to be conscious of this throughout your life. Similarly, if an immediate family member has an issue that you’re aware of, it’s essential you’re screened. As Dr Kelly said, people often don’t bother until after an incident, when so much can be done to stop one ever happening.

13 Make sure others around you are heart healthy too

Losing a loved one to a heart attack or another symptom of coronary heart disease can be sudden and shocking. Make sure your whole family is clued in and getting regular check-ups, particularly if they’re over the age of 45 and some of the poor lifestyle factors mentioned apply to them.

14 Prevention is  absolutely key

“The ultimate thing is to prevent any problems before they arise,” says Dr Kelly. “Screening is expensive, so society would like us to take the least expensive option, which is that we all behave ourselves! There is of course a cost equation to bear in mind, but in my opinion everyone over 40 should get checked out. Having to treat patients after they’ve already had an issue is really not ideal.”

15 Laugh out loud

They say laughter is the best medicine, but according to cardiologist Suzanne Steinbaum of the American Heart Association, research suggests that laughing can reduce stress hormones that contribute to unhealthy behaviour, and also increase good cholesterol.

Also, a more positive state of mind is beneficial to your health in general, both mental and physical — there’s a reason the term “heavy heart” exists.

So try and find the humour in stressful situations, and do the things you know make you happy.

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