Friday 20 September 2019

10 ways to reduce heart problems

Cardiologist Dr Robert Kelly shares his 10 positive changes to future-proof your heart health, lowering your risk of a stroke or heart attack

Give yourself a break and enjoy life to ensure a healthy heart
Give yourself a break and enjoy life to ensure a healthy heart

This advice applies to everyone because if you are unfortunate enough to have had a stroke or heart disease, or a heart attack, you can still lower your risk of another one and live longer by looking after these measures.

I have many patients in their 90s, mobile, alert and well who are resilient, want to keep going, have enjoyed life, and all have looked after themselves; some smoked and drank too much but made changes early in life. Some have survived multiple cancers, heart attacks and strokes and are alive to tell the tale. Each has made a positive change in their lifestyle to extend their length of life and well-being. Everyone has an opportunity to do the same.

Stop smoking

Quit smoking - the health benefits are immediate

Use willpower or seek help from a GP / chemist. You may need nicotine replacement such as gum or spray to help you manage initial cravings. Watch your weight, as you will tend to eat more when you're off cigarettes. If you need to eat, reach for a piece of fruit or drink glasses of water.

Start walking

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Family Get-togethers. Photo: Getty Images/Caiaimage

Aim for a 30-minute walk at a brisk pace everyday. Forget expensive gym memberships until you have adopted your new exercise habit and then invest in this if needed by joining the gym. Many people join gyms with good intentions but tend to drop out after a few weeks.

Take note of your eating habits

This is the first time that Irish beef will be served, following the opening of the US market access in January 2015.

Be mindful of your eating habits. The best way to reduce weight is eat smaller amounts of food, drink less alcohol (12-14 units per week), eat lots of coloured vegetables with meals, avoid eating too many carbohydrates such as potatoes and white bread; watch fat and sugar content in foods. Avoid excessive salt intake (particularly adding to food but also in junk food). Stay out of the kitchen after evening meals to avoid temptation to snack. Make sure you don't skip meals - starving yourself is not sustainable and you will only put weight back on after a few weeks.


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The self-help books worth coming back to time and time again

Stress can be in the form of financial, social, physical or family pressures. Try to take the opportunity to enjoy what you like and if stress is an ongoing problem, seek help, especially if it is leading to unhealthy habits, such as drinking excessively, eating and making you ill. Giving yourself time and going for a walk may help. Mindfulness and similar biofeedback techniques can help too, and many are easily accessible through online and mobile phone applications.

Maintain a Work-life balance

A work/life balance is important

Most people in Ireland fail to leave work at an appropriate hour and so are unable to wind down outside of the office. Congratulations to those that do, and perhaps you might share with us all what your solutions are! I believe that taking time to yourself, examining your own stresses and addressing these is one way to start. Taking a few hours off - cycling, playing golf with your phone switched off, and no work activity, is a starting point. Or you could take a walk at lunchtime and separate work and life. What do you really care about in life? You only live once, so remember to work out what you actually want - a big job or a great family, hobbies, and enjoying life with others. There is a balance to be had. Stress contributes to physical illness and drives many unhealthy habits that can provoke heart attacks and strokes.

Get more Sleep

The average person needs 7 to 9 hours of sleep

Poor sleeping habits affect heart health in many ways. It contributes to blood pressure and heart rhythm abnormalities that add to increased risk of a stroke. Poor sleep is often the result of stress, lack of work-life balance, drinking too much alcohol, inactivity, drinking too much coffee, eating too much chocolate or sugar, and obesity. Persistent insomnia may benefit from a review with your doctor.

Reduce Alcohol

As a nation we are overly 'fond of the drop'.

We drink too much alcohol as a nation. The recommended intake is 12-14 units per week. One unit is a small wine glass - a glass not a pint of beer - or a spirit shot. In the latter, be careful of sugar intake from fizzy mixtures. Be mindful that wine and beer also contain a lot of sugar. Many of my patients tell me they are taking care of food intake, exercising but not losing any weight. Often the reason is that they continue to drink too much alcohol. Regrettably those that do drink too much are the very people who end up with the most health issues. I believe it is fair to assume that we all drink too much, and we all need to make a change.

Have an MOT on yourself

Regularly get your blood pressure checked by your GP

Blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol levels, atrial fibrillation, are all potentially reversible and manageable factors, so get a health check with your doctor. If you have some of these risks or a family history of strokes or heart attacks - get checked out. Don't delay on the belief that 'it will never happen to me'.

I see so many patients with heart attacks and strokes with preventable risks. A lot of time is spent with overweight and unhealthy patients helping them to change lifestyles in an effort to lower the risk of heart problems, but also creating an opportunity to be more healthy, well, live longer, be more productive, less stressed, and even off tablets.

These steps are all proven scientifically to lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Regrettably many of us look after our vehicles better than ourselves, and that applies to men and women.

Manage Obesity

Weighing the facts is frightening.

Obesity has many contributing factors all of which need attention, especially with kids and teenagers from education at school, sports, home, to parent education, society's approach to activity, diet, alcohol intake, industry and government contribution to creating healthier nation to mention a few. Do bear in mind that exercise is the most important factor in determining how long we all live. So start that walk with your family, friends, the dog or on your own.


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Be happy, give yourself a break, enjoy your life, and your family and friends as much as you can.

* Dr Robert Kelly is a consultant cardiologist at the Beacon Hospital. See for more information on lowering your risk of heart problems

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