Thursday 21 November 2019

Women worry too much about weight and ignore the heart

Stephen Milton meets the one-woman powerhouse fighting to prevent heart disease one meal at a time

Ask the doctor: Dr Laura Corr
Ask the doctor: Dr Laura Corr

Stephen Milton

Up to 20pc of women lose their lives as a result of heart attacks, strokes and further cardiovascular complications, largely products of high levels of cholesterol.

And yet so many ignore their cardio health and focus on an overshadowing fear of developing cancer, which according to numbers, poses a significantly lesser risk to mortality rate.

So says Dr Laura Corr, one of the UK's leading cardiologists and co-author of new book, Eat Your Way to Lower Cholesterol.

"If you ask a woman what she's worried of dying from, she'll say breast cancer," the Irish practitioner explains, speaking to Health and Living at her Harley Street clinic in London.

"They're worried about ovarian cancer and bowel cancer. Heart attack tends to come quite a way down the list. If you look at the statistics, breast cancer kills 4pc of women; lung cancer kills between 5 and 7pc and bowel cancer kills 5 and a half pc.

"And heart attacks and strokes kill 18-20pc of women. It kills more than the first three big cancers added together. And that doesn't stand for just British women, or Irish women, that's all over the world."

A consultant for over 20 years at London's Guys and St Thomas' hospital, the Dublin-born specialist believes a certain 'fashionability' is responsible for an apathy towards heart disease.

"It's a trend thing. Lung cancer is really important for women but you don't get the same kind of media feedback as you do about breast cancer.

"And men definitely experience cardiovascular illness from a younger age than women who historically, just didn't realise the risk. But everyone knows someone in the family who's had a heart attack or angina or a stroke or a stent (a coronary angioplasty treatment which helps relieve blockages or narrowing of the arteries). So monitoring your cholesterol levels is imperative in maintaining good health for your heart."

While surgical procedures once formulated the spine of Dr Corr's profession, she now focuses on prevention before intervention, which is why she worked with Ian Marber (founder of The Food Doctor consultancy) to produce Eat Your Way to Lower Cholesterol.

"Most people are aware there is a strong link between high cholesterol and heart disease. But you'll see there's one sentence in this book that's really important - 'numbers aren't everything.' People say, 'my cholesterol is at six, do I need a statin (a class of drugs used to lower cholesterol levels?' And the answer is, it depends.

"If your cholesterol is at four, and you have diabetes and your dad died of a heart attack at 36, you might need a statin now. If you're like me, over six with no risk factors - and I've scanned my heart and it's completely clear - my decision is to focus on exercise and diet.

"And this is where the importance of diet comes hand in hand with early detection and prevention."

With recipes created by Dr Sarah Schenker, the new book provides 'relatively' easy-to-make dishes, snacks, suppers and treats that base themselves around six key foods proven to lower cholesterol by up to 20pc in just three months - fibre, healthy oils, soya, oats, nuts and cholesterol-lowering sterols and stanols (found on the supermarket shelf in certain yoghurt shots and margarine spreads Benecol and Flora Proactiv).

Explaining why we should eliminate sugars and fats, it also provides a handy meal planner and a proper deconstruction of myths surrounding the effects of high cholesterol.

"I think there's so much information out there, people are in danger of switching off, thinking, 'I just don't care anymore," explains the doctor.

"It's all about eating fresh, non-processed foods. And be sure you're consuming lots of vegetables and fibre, a great source being beans and pulses. These are very important as they stop cholesterol being absorbed into the bloodstream.

"But with all that in mind, like everyone else, I want to come home in the evening and cook something that's quick and easy and this book offers over 100 recipes which provide just that, while also reducing the risk of heart disease and strokes."

For many of us, it's a sales pitch heard one too many times but Dr Corr contests that jaded, over-saturated perception. These are recipes you're already familiar with; fish pies, pasta bakes.

"There are even a couple of sections if you just want a quick snack. Like oatcakes with some hummus or mackerel fillets - mash them up with some horseradish and stick them on your oatcakes and that's some of your key foods in there."

Sagely practising what she preaches, Dr Corr, who pulled back on her consultancy work at Guys and St Thomas' after receiving treatment for breast cancer in 2005, implemented several significant changes to her and her family's eating habits.

"Truthfully, as I wrote the book, my shopping practices changed. I used to pick up a packet of biscuits while I strolled down the supermarket aisle. Then I started thinking, 'Why are they in my house, I don't really want my kids to eat them.' Yeah, if they're not there, they'll complain, but I'll just say 'have a banana instead'.

"The biggest change I've made personally? I eat nuts now. If I'm hungry, I'll grab a handful and graze on those in place of biscuits and sugary treats.

"And in our house, we don't eat potatoes anymore, which for an Irish woman is saying something. Potatoes breed as sugar in the body so we'll use sweet potatoes instead as they have tonnes of fibre in them.

"It's these small significant changes that make all the difference."

Spending her first years growing up in Stillorgan, the doctor, now living in central London with husband Nigel and their two teen daughters, moved with her family to the UK when she was just six.

And while the memories of her Irish youth have somewhat faded, an enticing south Dublin lilt remains intact.

"We moved because of my father's work," she says. However, dreams of becoming a leading cardiology practitioner were never on the cards for the adolescent. "I didn't do doctors and nurses as a child. I never bandaged my dolls' legs. And I'm pretty sure I failed my first aid exam as a teenager."

Training at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School and the Royal Brompton Hospital, London, Dr Corr (55), proudly confesses a rather singular initial reasoning behind her decision to pursue a consultancy in cardiology.

"Sheer pig-headedness," laughs the specialist, who attributes her youthful, toned appearance to a combination of resistance formal training and dynamic Pilates.

"When I became a consultant, I think there was just seven women in the field at the time. There are far more now but it wasn't common for women to do angioplasty.

"But I wanted to do something in medicine that was really important, fundamental and where the science was changing. And what luck, I've lived through probably the greatest years in cardiology ever.

"Stents were rare when I started. But now, if you have a heart attack, a stent is put in that same day. The evolution has been remarkable."

After 13 years at Guys and St Thomas', Dr Corr chose to primarily focus on her private practice on Harley Street after treatment for breast cancer, though she maintains a strong presence at the hospital.

"My kids were four and seven at the time. When I came out of the treatment, I walked back into the hospital and said, 'I'm not doing this anymore. Hours from seven until 11. It was really demanding. And recently my children told me that they never saw me. So I changed my professional life and now work mostly in private practice in Harley Street with much more control over my schedule.

"It's also why I was able to write this book. Most cardiologists would love to, but they simply don't have the time."

Private practice ultimately changed Dr Corr's perspective on heart disease, and she is now a leading charge on prevention over intervention.

"Operating is the greatest thing to do but I started to feel like a diabetic specialist, cutting off toes. We shouldn't be getting there in the first place, which is why I became much more focused on early detection, diet, all the stuff that comes 20 years before. And we're starting to see the results.

"It's not just about staying well until you're 50. It's staying well until you're 70, 80, 90," she smiles.

"And now, I even have a patient who's 103."

Eat Your Way to Lower Cholesterol by Ian Marber and Dr Laura Corr, with recipes by Dr Sarah Schenker, is out now

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