Dr David Barton, Consultant Cardiologist at Dublin’s Beacon Hospital, shares his tips for keeping your ticker in the best possible shape and preventing heart disease
Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in this country. In pre-Covid times — in 2019 alone — 28pc of all deaths here were attributed to heart disease and a total of four million people died in Europe. Tragically, a large proportion of these deaths were preventable. Heart conditions can also, in a very profound way, negatively affect someone’s normal day-to-day activities and overall quality of life.
Here are some basic steps you can take to avoid these potential life-changing effects of heart disease:
Take steps to protect your heart now
Most patients get diagnosed with heart disease when it is already at an advanced state. Given it is preventable, early identification of risk factors that lead to heart problems is critical. In fact, we know the build-up of plaques in the arteries of the heart can start as early as our teenage years. So, in essence, it is never too early to think about yours or your children’s heart health. Heart disease does not just affect the elderly.
Understand what causes heart disease
Most conditions that lead to heart disease — high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, smoking and inactivity — are things we can be reversed or treated when diagnosed. Lifestyle factors commonly lead to these conditions and thankfully can be avoided. Healthy-Heart.org is a helpful website designed by the European Society of Cardiology specifically for patients. It outlines things people can do to prevent them from not only developing heart disease, but also the conditions that lead to heart disease.
Have a diet that is protective of your heart not damaging to it
“We are what we eat” — this is never truer than when it comes to the heart. A diet that is high in sugar, fat and processed starches (or carbohydrates) dramatically increases the likelihood of developing heart disease. Conversely, a diet high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, and natural oils is protective against developing problems with the heart.
Both in patients that have heart disease and in the general population, regular aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce overall heart health. Three hundred minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 150 minutes of high intensity exercise is what is recommended to both prevent and treat patients with heart disease. Moderate exercise consists of brisk walking, cutting the grass, light cycling, doubles tennis, hiking or dancing. High intensity exercise includes jogging, cycling fast (>14mph), swimming, skipping rope, aerobics, gymnastics and participating in team sports. It needs to be an integral part of everyone’s weekly routine.
Do not smoke or quit if you do
Smoking leads to more death than any other lifestyle behaviour that we choose. If you smoke, quitting is the most powerful thing you can do for your heart and overall health. Quitting can be very difficult (I know from experience), and going cold turkey is generally ineffective for most people. Research has shown that a three-pronged approach involving counselling, nicotine replacement and medication is the most effective way to stop. The HSE has a very useful link for information and a programme developed for quitting — see quit.hse.ie.
Have good sleep habits
People with poor sleep hygiene have a higher risk of developing and dying from heart disease. Everyone should have a minimum of 7-8 hours of good quality sleep a night. If you snore and have a lot of fatigue during the day, you may need to be tested for sleep apnea, which is a condition that frequently leads to high blood pressure, heart failure and even abnormal heart rhythms that can cause stroke.
Look after your mental health
People who suffer from untreated depression and anxiety (approximately 20pc of the population) have a higher likelihood for developing heart disease. It is critical not just for your heart health, but also your overall health, that you discuss symptoms of low mood and anxiety — poor sleep, loss of interest and pleasure in normal activities, low energy, feeling worthless and poor overall concentration — with your doctor. Untreated mental health is also associated with lifestyle behaviours that can lead to heart disease — smoking, drug abuse and inactivity.
Have regular check-ups
If you are a man and over the age of 40 or a woman and over the age of 50 you should be having annual check-ups with your doctor. If you have a strong family history of heart disease — that is a father/brother who had disease under the age of 55 or a mother/sister under the age of 60 — then you should be checked for high cholesterol, diabetes or high blood pressure, regardless of your age.
Have open and honest conversations about heart disease
If you or a family member have heart disease, discuss it with each other and with friends. It may seem simple, but it can dramatically increase awareness for folks, and prompt them to be seen and evaluated when necessary.
Treat your health as you do your personal finances
We all tend to focus on or want things that affect us now — a phenomenon called ‘present bias’. Unfortunately, most conditions that lead to heart disease are silent and as a result do not bother or affect us in the present moment. Most of us are planning for our retirement by budgeting and setting aside money into pension plans despite it not being something that benefits or affects us now. I ask you to have the same approach with your heart health as not doing so has the potential to have a much greater negative impact on your quality of life in the future.