Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in Australia (Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare). It occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscles become narrowed or blocked by a buildup of fatty substances, this is known as atherosclerosis. As the coronary arteries are blocked or narrowed, the heart does not get the oxygen that it needs, leading to health complications.
What are the lifestyle risk factors for heart disease?
According to the Heart Foundation, the risk factors for heart disease that you have control over are:
- Smoking, as it damages the blood vessels to your heart
- Unhealthy diet; which affects your cholesterol, blood pressure and weight
- Being inactive (not exercising enough)
- Unhealthy weight
- Excessive alcohol consumption (a.k.a. heavy drinking or binge drinking)
What risk factors are there that I can’t control?
Some risk factors for heart disease are beyond your control, such as:
- Family history
- Sex – males are at a higher risk than females
- Female specific risk factors, such as complications during pregnancy
- Ethnic background, such as South Asian, Middle Eastern, Maori or Pacific Islander are at a higher risk
- Social environment, as people living in low socioeconomic areas are at higher risk of having a heart attack or dying due to heart disease
To help you understand how you can prevent heart disease, the Heart Foundation has outlined ten steps that you can incorporate into an effective heart healthy lifestyle.
What can I do to Prevent Heart Disease?
To help to prevent heart disease, adopting a healthy lifestyle can make a big difference. Below, we’ve listed the activities you can take to stay on top of your heart health and prevent heart disease.
See your GP for a Heart Health Check
Consulting your GP for a heart health check is important, as they can give you information and help you make a plan that will suit all of your needs.
Typically, your GP will do the following during a heart health check:
- Check the following body measurements for any immediate concerns
- Blood pressure
- Blood sugar levels
- Discuss your history and lifestyle, including aspects such as:
- Your diet
- Levels of physical activity
- Smoking and alcohol consumption
- Whether you are maintaining a healthy weight
- Your medical and family history
- Assess all of the aforementioned information in order to determine your risk of a heart attack or stroke in the next five years.
- If necessary, your doctor will help you create a plan that will address specific risk factors for heart disease and promote your overall heart health.
- Additionally, your doctor may discuss prescribing medication if they deem it necessary to help lower your risk factors for heart disease.
- Refer you to another health professional if it is determined that you may require further support.
Follow a Healthy Eating Pattern
Eating a variety of nutritious foods is good for your health and can help reduce the risk of developing chronic conditions, including heart disease. This includes:
- Eating plenty of vegetables, fruit and whole grains.
- Including a variety of healthy protein-rich foods; especially fish and seafood, legumes (such as beans and lentils), nuts and seeds. Eggs and poultry can also be enjoyed as part of a heart-healthy eating pattern.
- If you eat red meat, choose lean cuts and limit it to one to three times per week.
- Choosing unflavoured milk, yoghurt and cheese. If you have heart disease or high cholesterol, choose reduced fat varieties.
- Including healthy fats and oils like nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and their oils for cooking.
- Add herbs and spices to flavour foods, instead of adding salt.
Move More (and More Often)
Physical activity is an important part of looking after your health and reducing your risk of a heart attack or stroke.
All types of physical activity count. Moderate-intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking, is great for your health.
It is recommended that you:
- Do 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity five or more days per week. If you like, you can break this up into smaller bouts, such as three 10-minute walks
- Are active on all or most days of the week, with some muscle-strengthening activities on at least two days each week.
Be Smoke Free
Stopping smoking is one of the best things you can do for your health. Every cigarette that you don’t smoke is doing you good.
As well as causing cancer, tobacco smoking affects the arteries that supply blood to your heart and other parts of your body. It reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood and damages your artery walls.
Tobacco smoking also makes your blood ‘stickier’, causing blood cells to clump together. This slows blood flow through your arteries and makes blockages more common. Blockages may cause a heart attack or stroke.
The most effective way to stop smoking is with a combination of:
Maintain a Healthy Weight
Consistent exercise and a healthy diet can help to maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk of heart disease.
Drink less Alcohol
Drinking alcohol can increase the risk of a heart attack and stroke.
If you do drink alcohol, the Heart Foundation recommends following the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) recommended levels of alcohol consumption:
- Healthy men and women should drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than four standard drinks on any one day.
- Children and young people under 18 years of age should not drink alcohol.
- To reduce the risk of harm to their unborn child, women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy should not drink alcohol. For women who are breastfeeding, not drinking alcohol is safest for their baby.
- For people with heart disease and related conditions or risk factors, the evidence is not strong enough to recommend a safe amount of alcohol consumption for heart health.
- For some people, the safest option is to not drink alcohol at all.
Stress is a key risk factor for heart disease. Learning when to adjust your lifestyle and situation can play an important part in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Understanding stress, stress management and relaxation are vital in ensuring good mental health.
Studies have shown that living with a mental health condition like depression or anxiety can increase the risk of developing heart disease (Source: Better Health). People who are socially isolated or do not have good social support are also at greater risk of developing heart disease.
Mental health conditions like anxiety and depression can be managed and supported. If you’re feeling lonely, isolated, worried, or depressed, talk to your doctor and reach out to friends and family. You can also get more information and support from Beyond Blue.
Manage your Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance produced naturally by your body. The body needs cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D and to build cells. Everyone has cholesterol, but too much means plaque can build up in the coronary arteries.
This can make it harder for blood and oxygen to reach the heart and brain, which can increase the risk of a heart attack and stroke.
Most of the total cholesterol in your blood is made up of ‘bad’ low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Only a small part is made up of ‘good’ high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
In order to maintain good cholesterol levels and prevent heart disease, you should avoid eating processed foods that increase LDL cholesterol, and instead eat foods that increase HDL cholesterol such as oily fish, certain oils (sunflower, soybean, olive, etc.) as well as seeds and nuts.
Manage your Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is the pressure on the walls of your arteries as your heart pumps blood around your body. High blood pressure can overload your heart and arteries and can increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Your family history, eating patterns, alcohol intake, weight and physical activity have a strong influence on blood pressure. Certain medications can also affect your blood pressure.
That is why it is important to consult your GP so they can measure your blood pressure and determine the level of intervention necessary to keep your blood pressure at a normal level.
Manage your blood glucose levels
People with diabetes are at greater risk of heart attack and stroke than people without diabetes.
The three main types of diabetes are:
- Type 1 diabetes, where the body doesn’t make insulin.
- Type 2 diabetes, where the body becomes resistant to insulin and doesn’t make enough insulin to meet needs.
- Gestational diabetes, which women can develop during pregnancy.
Insulin is the hormone responsible for regulating blood sugar levels in the body. Your doctor will check your blood sugar levels as part of a Heart Health Check, at which point they may recommend you make changes to your diet and increase your physical activity. They also may prescribe you medicine if necessary.
How can the Life! program help me prevent heart disease?
The first step to prevent heart disease is to know your risk for it. The Life! program provides an easy to use health check that takes 3 minutes to complete and helps you understand your risk for developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Once you know your risk, you may be eligible to join the Life! program to help you prevent heart disease and lower your risk.
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.
Life! 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