Heart Health - Hypertension

Hyertension and the risk to your heart


Coronary artery disease - the disease that causes angina and heart attacks - is still one of the main causes of death and disability in Australia. While there are some risk factors, such as age and family history, that can't be changed, there are several other risk factors that can be modified to help keep your heart healthy as you get older.


A healthy lifestyle (i.e. not smoking; eating a low-fat, balanced diet; exercising; and maintaining a healthy weight) can protect your heart and keep you feeling and looking better for longer. And what's more, making some positive lifestyle changes can actually reverse or stabilise heart disease in those who already have it.


Steps to protecting your heart:


1. Stop smoking. Smoking is not only a major cause of coronary heart disease, but also increases your risk of sudden cardiac death. Of all the risk factors for heart disease, smoking is the most dangerous, increasing risk by 2-4 times.


If you are a smoker, quitting is the most important step you can take to reduce your risk of heart disease. In fact, your risk drops dramatically just 12 months after quitting.


2. Keep your blood pressure down. If you have high blood pressure (also known as hypertension), you are twice as likely to have a heart attack as someone with normal blood pressure. And because there are often no symptoms associated with mild-to-moderate high blood pressure, it's important to have regular blood pressure checks to ensure that you are not at risk without knowing it.


Fortunately, there are several lifestyle alterations that can help lower blood pressure, including reducing your dietary salt intake, exercising, stopping smoking and reducing stress. You may also need to take a blood pressure-lowering medication in addition to these lifestyle modifications. These include Alphapharm's Noten, so discuss this with your health care professional.


3. Control your cholesterol. Most people have heard that a high cholesterol level is bad for them. This is because high levels of cholesterol - a fat-like substance in the blood - more than double your risk of coronary heart disease. One type of cholesterol called LDL cholesterol is also known as 'bad' cholesterol because it is especially dangerous for your heart.


A healthy diet and exercise are both important in keeping your cholesterol levels in check. You can lower your LDL cholesterol level by reducing the amount of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol in your diet. Eating plenty of soluble fibre, fruit and vegetables and exercising regularly can also help control your cholesterol.


There are medications available that can reduce your cholesterol level if lifestyle modifications have not had a significant impact. The cholesterol-lowering medications known as statins have been shown to offer excellent protection from cardiovascular disease. But remember, it's still important to eat a healthy diet to reduce your cholesterol and keep it down. Cholesterol-lowering medications are not designed to allow you to eat whatever you want without any consequences!


4. Get physical. A sedentary lifestyle nearly doubles your risk of developing coronary artery disease, making it almost as dangerous as smoking, high cholesterol or high blood pressure.


The good news is that even moderate-intensity physical activity, which includes everyday activities like gardening and housework, can reduce your risk. But the best exercise for your heart is aerobic exercise. That's because it can help control your cholesterol levels, as well as reduce blood pressure, body fat and mental stress. Combining exercise with other lifestyle measures, such as maintaining a healthy weight, is even better protection for your heart.


Try to get in at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most (if not all) days of the week. You can make up your 30 minutes in bouts of 10 minutes or more if that's more convenient. And remember, it's never too late - even if you've already had a heart attack, exercise can reduce your chances of having another one by 25 per cent. However, it's important to always check with your doctor before you start exercising to ensure that the activity is suitable for your current level of fitness.


5. Eat a healthy diet. Saturated fat and trans fat (also called trans-fatty acids) are 2 types of fat that not only contribute to weight gain but also raise your blood cholesterol. So you should avoid, or at least cut down on, foods that contain these fats, including:


  • fast foods;


  • fried foods;


  • cakes, pies and pastries;


  • full-fat dairy products; and


  • meat products such as salami and sausages.


As well as reducing the amount of fat in your diet, it's a good idea to reduce dietary cholesterol, refined carbohydrates (e.g. white bread, white rice) and foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients.


A diet that contains plenty of fruit, vegetables and grains can reduce your risk of heart disease, so aim for 5-10 servings of fruit and vegies every day. Omega-3 fatty acids, found naturally in seafood, can also reduce your risk of heart disease, so try to include fish or other seafood in your diet at least 2-3 times a week.


Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol also seems to have beneficial effects for your heart, by increasing HDL cholesterol (also known as 'good' cholesterol because it helps reduce your risk of heart disease). The heart-protective effects seem to be more strongly associated with red wine than other forms of alcohol, possibly because of the presence of antioxidants called flavonoids in red wine. But it's a fine line, because having too much can increase your blood pressure and cause other health problems. Men should aim for no more than 2 standard drinks a day; women no more than one.


6. Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight not only increases your chances of having high blood cholesterol levels, diabetes and high blood pressure, but it's also an independent risk factor for heart disease. So even if you're otherwise healthy, being overweight means you are more likely to develop heart disease.


As well as your overall weight, the distribution of your body fat is important in determining your risk. Body fat stored around your waist is associated with a higher risk than fat that is stored around the hips and thighs.


Maintaining a healthy body weight can reduce your risk of heart disease by 35-55 per cent. And even a small amount of weight loss can be beneficial if you're overweight - by losing just 10 per cent of your body weight, you can help lower your blood pressure, cholesterol and risk of developing diabetes.


7. Try to reduce stress levels. Psychological factors, including stress, depression and social isolation, have also been found to increase the risk of heart disease. In fact, the risk from psychological stress is similar to that with better known risk factors such as smoking, raised cholesterol and high blood pressure. So reducing stress is important, and there are several ways that you can achieve this, including:


  • exercise;


  • relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation;


  • counseling or support groups;


  • anger management; and


  • behavioural changes (which help you identify the causes of stress and methods of dealing with it).


So lifestyle changes can go a long way to protecting your heart as you grow older. And remember, it's never too late to stop smoking, change your diet or get active.