When it comes to cardiovascular disease (CVD) in Australia, more than four million Australians are affected. CVD is responsible for a quarter of Australian deaths per year. Three quarters of Australians are at risk of the disease.
However, over the last 10 years, deaths due to CVD have been declining, thanks to research into risk factors, medications and interventions. The good news is that it can be delayed or prevented, and this article will outline how to reduce your risk of CVD.
What is Cardiovascular Disease?
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a term that includes a group of conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels leading to complications. These complications involve diseases such as;
- Coronary heart disease
- Heart attack
- Heart failure
- Arrhythmias – abnormal heart beats
- Aneurysm – a bulge caused by weakening of the heart muscle or artery
- Septal defect – an abnormal opening between the left and right sides of the heart
- Peripheral vascular disease – a disease of the large blood vessels of the arms, legs, and feet
- Rheumatic heart disease – caused by rheumatic fever, and mainly affecting the heart valves and;
- Congenital heart disease – defects or malformations in the heart or blood vessels that occur before birth.
How to prevent Cardiovascular Disease
As CVD is Australia’s leading cause of death (Source: Heart Research Australia) it is important to know that you can take steps to reduce your risk. Below, we’ve listed the steps you can take to lower your risk of developing CVD, through both lifestyle interventions and medication.
A Healthy Lifestyle
A healthy lifestyle is crucial in preventing CVD. This includes a balanced diet and regular exercise. Making lifestyle changes can help you by reducing your risk of CVD and can also help you create positive long term habits for your overall health.
These healthy habits include:
Maintain a Healthy Diet
Nutrition is an incredibly important factor in preventing CVD. Try to eat:
- Plenty of vegetables, fruit and wholegrains;
- A variety of healthy protein-rich foods;
- Unflavoured milk, yoghurt and cheese;
- Healthy fats and oils; and
- Healthier alternatives to salt (such as herbs and spices).
If you need further help, your doctor can refer you to an Accredited Practising Dietitian to help you achieve a sustainable healthy diet.
Limit Alcohol Consumption
If you find that your alcohol consumption is excessive (i.e. more than two standard drinks per day), it is strongly recommended that you reduce how much alcohol you drink. (Source: Heart Foundation).
- If you’re a non-dependent drinker, your GP can provide advice and counselling to help you abstain from alcohol; and
- If you are alcohol dependent, withdrawal will be a little more complicated. However, there are clinics and agencies that specialise in addiction and are able to help.
Engage in Physical Activity
Physical activity is incredibly important in preventing a whole range of health complications, not only CVD. While it is recommended that you do at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on most, if not all, days of the week; any progress towards reaching that goal is helpful. (Source: Heart Foundation).
Maintain a Healthy Weight
This works along with maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise. Typically, different world regions have different metrics for a healthy waist measurement and body mass index. For example;
- If you’re of European descent, aim for a waist measurement of 94cm if you’re male or 80cm if you’re female, as well as a body mass index of 18.5-24.9 kg/m² (Source: Heart Foundation).
- If you’re of Asian descent, aim for a waist measurement of 90cm if you’re male or 80cm if you’re female, as well as a body mass index of 18-23 kg/m² (Source: Asian Diabetes Prevention Initiative).
Similar to exercise, any progress towards reaching this goal is beneficial, even if you are unable to reach that exact goal weight.
Quitting smoking has major and immediate health benefits for all smokers. It is difficult to stop smoking, but there are many support options available, such as;
- Health professionals that can offer advice and encouragement;
- Nicotine replacement therapy; and
- Pharmacotherapy, which can also be coupled with behavioural and psychosocial support.
Depending on your physical health, your doctor may prescribe you medication to help you reach the health targets to reduce your risk of CVD. Medication will not replace lifestyle changes such as consuming a healthy diet and participating in physical activity. Instead medication will work together with a healthy lifestyle to help reduce your risk of developing CVD.
On average, people with a CVD diagnosis tend to have higher levels of bad cholesterol, a.k.a. low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Too much LDL in the blood can result in the build-up of plaque in the arteries which is a waxy substance made up of deposits of fats, cholesterol, cellular waste products, calcium, and fibrin. Plaque deposits in the artery wall can obstruct blood and oxygen as it travels to the heart.
High cholesterol is a leading factor in the development of CVD, so your doctor may prescribe you a medication called a statin, which is a group of medicines that can help lower the level of LDL cholesterol in the blood.
As previously mentioned, statins are not a replacement for a good diet and exercise. Instead, they should be used together to lower your cholesterol to the target level.
Achieve Balanced Blood Pressure
As your heart pumps blood around your body, this creates pressure on the walls of your arteries. Your blood pressure goes up and down during the day; however, a consistently high blood pressure can overload your heart and arteries – increasing your risk of CVD. Hence, it is important to keep your blood pressure at a healthy level.
All of the lifestyle factors previously mentioned will contribute to lowering your blood pressure to a healthy level. Your doctor may also prescribe you medication such as blood thinners in order to help you lower your blood pressure to a safe level.
Other medications that your doctor may prescribe you in order to help prevent CVD, include;
- Antiplatelet agents
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
- Aldosterone Antagonists and
- Short Acting Nitrates, etc.
What are the risk factors associated with CVD?
There are various risk factors that contribute to the onset of CVD. Consult your doctor; as the sooner you address any of these potential factors, the easier it will be to prevent CVD in the long term.
- Smoking in any capacity (including excessive exposure to secondhand smoke)
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Diabetes (type 1, 2 or prediabetes)
- Excessive body weight
- An unhealthy diet
- A lack of physical exercise
- A family history of cardiovascular disease and
- Sex and age (men have a higher risk than women, risk levels rise the older you get).
How can the Life! program help me reduce my risk of CVD?
Life! can help you reduce your risk of CVD by providing you with various tools that can help you lead a healthier lifestyle, lowering your risk of CVD.
Life! is a free healthy lifestyle program that helps you improve your eating habits, increase your physical activity and manage stress. You can choose from a group course or the telephone health coaching service.
Our experienced health professionals will help you make small changes to your lifestyle so that you can achieve your health goals and reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The Life! program is funded by the Victorian government and managed by Diabetes Victoria. You can check your eligibility for the program here.
Elleni Kaias, Accredited Practicing Dietitian | Primary Care Engagement Lead
Kristie Cocotis, Head of Prevention and Health Promotion
Sarah Dubé, Strategy and Engagement Lead
Ria Cheripuram, Digital Communications Officer
Tegan Kohlman, Communications and Social Marketing Officer