Heart disease is Australia's biggest killer, affecting people as young as 10. Act now to help prevent heart disease later on – no matter how old you are.
In the time it takes you to read this article (about 10 minutes), one Australian will have died from heart disease or stroke. Heart disease is the single largest cause of death in Australia, with stroke coming in a close second. Fortunately, both are largely preventable for most people, and simple lifestyle changes are all it takes for you and your family to be protected.
When it comes to heart disease, there are two types of risk factors: non-modifiable (ones you can't change) and modifiable (ones you can change). You can't change risk factors such as a family history of heart disease, being male, ageing or having previously had heart disease. Though you can monitor your health more closely.
Risk factors you can change include: your cholesterol level (you want to be below 5.5mmol/L), blood pressure (120/80mmHg is normal), diet (keep it low in salt and saturated fat and high in fibre), and activity levels (less than 30 minutes a day increases your risk). Quitting smoking and moderate alcohol consumption will also help you avoid heart disease.
What is cardiovascular disease (CVD)?
CVD is an umbrella term for conditions involving the heart and blood vessels. They include:
Heart attack - a sudden and complete blockage of the blood supply to the heart.
Atrial fibrillation - when the heart does not beat normally.
Coronary heart disease - suffered when the arteries are narrowed by cholesterol build-up, which reduces oxygen flow to the heart and increases the risk of heart attack.
Deep vein thrombosis - a clot in one of the deep veins in the lower body - usually the legs. The clot can travel to the lungs and cause a pulmonary embolism.
Heart failure - the heart becomes too weak to pump blood through the body. Blood pools behind the heart and fluid collects in the lungs and other parts of the body. This can result in shortness of breath and swelling of the legs.
Stroke - when an artery supplying part of the brain becomes blocked or bursts. That part of the brain is damaged due to a lack of oxygen.
Risk factors for CVD
Take a couple of minutes to answer these questions:
Do you have a family member with any of these conditions: heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, overweight/obesity?
Are you male?
Have you been through menopause?
Are you overweight?
Do you have high blood pressure?
Do you have high blood cholesterol?
Is your diet high in foods such as cakes and biscuits, takeaway food, fat/skin-on meat/chicken or full-cream dairy products?
Do you eat less than two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables each day?
Do you add salt to your cooking or at the table?
Do you eat less than four serves of bread/cereal daily?
Are you a smoker or an ex-smoker of less than five years?
Do you exercise for less than 30 minutes a day?
Do you feel stressed, depressed or socially isolated?
If you answered yes to three or more of these questions, then it's time for a check-up. Keep reading for more on preventing heart disease across all ages.
Children under 3 years
What's the risk?
Most kids are fine, but studies reveal some children are showing signs of heart disease before they start kindergarten. Children with a family history of heart disease, who are overweight and/or inactive have an increased risk of developing heart disease.
Consult your GP if you think your child is at risk. Focus on giving them healthy meals and helping them to play actively.
When starting solids, introduce vegetables before fruits because our natural desire for sweetness means babies are more likely to accept vegetables if they are sampled first. Be sure to serve full-cream milk until your child is three years old, as they need the kilojoules from full-fat milk for growth and development.
Make physical playtime a fun part of each day and limit the amount of time your child spends in front of the television. Start to build healthy, lifelong habits of active leisure.
Children 3-12 years
What's the risk?
Children who are overweight or obese are at risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Overweight, inactive children with a family history of heart disease are most at risk.
Encourage children to be active and ensure their diet is low in saturated fat - our recipes can help.
Choose low-fat dairy products and lean meats. This will help reduce the amount of saturated fat children eat. Include oily fish such as tuna in their diet. Strive to offer two serves of fruit and five serves of vegies each day. Choose low-salt products and avoid adding salt to your cooking, so they don't crave it in the future.
Get active with your children by taking them to the park, playing games with them or enrolling them in sporting teams. Limit the amount of time they spend on small screen use (sitting at a computer, watching TV or DVDs, and playing electronic games) to no more than two hours per day. Children should play or run around for at least one hour each day.
Teenagers 12-18 years
What's the risk?
Heart disease is a silent killer, with the lifestyle we live as teens having a huge impact on our health as adults. Teens who are overweight, inactive, have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, drink too much alcohol and who smoke are at higher risk.
Discourage your teenagers from smoking, particularly girls who are more likely to start smoking as teens. You should also teach your children to drink responsibly. It's a tricky time, but being a good role model and encouraging healthy behaviour can help.
Teens need lots of kilojoules to keep them going - teach them to get their energy from healthier foods. Offer a variety of nutritious meals at home using the recipes in Healthy Food Guide. And encourage them to limit the amount of deep-fried/fatty takeaway food they eat.
Actively encourage teens to play sport. Place limits on TV and computer time to stop sedentary behaviour.
Women 19-55 years
What's the risk?
Premenopausal women are protected somewhat from heart disease by oestrogen. They also tend to store weight on their hips, a lower risk position to carry it than around the stomach.
Keep your weight down and your activity levels up. Try to reduce stress with cardio or relaxation.
Limit the amount of alcohol and fast food you consume, and increase the amount of oily fish you eat. Choose low-salt products, and eat two serves of fruit and five serves of vegies each day.
Get your friends together and start exercising regularly (aim for an hour a day). Be as active as you can in your day-to-day routine.
Women 55+ years
What's the risk?
Three in four women have at least one heart disease risk factor. After menopause, women have the same risk as men.
Keep active. As we age, the amount of food we need decreases, but we still need lots of nutrients. Eat the food you need without putting on weight by leading an active life.
Eat more soy products as these help with menopausal symptoms, and may also reduce your risk of developing heart disease and osteoporosis.
Just do it. Exercise will reduce blood pressure and may lower LDL cholesterol levels. Join a walking club or women's gym.
Men 19+ years
What's the risk?
Four in five men have at least one risk factor (overweight, physically inactive, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoker, family history or excessive alcohol intake).
Visit your GP at least once a year to get your blood pressure, blood cholesterol, weight and blood glucose levels tested.
Include a variety of heart-healthy foods in your diet (see table below). Limit alcohol to one or two standard drinks per day. Cut out salt where possible by choosing low-salt or no-added-salt products.
Exercise helps control blood pressure, cholesterol and weight, so find time to do at least 30 minutes of exercise each day.
Q and A
Heart disease runs in David King’s family, so he was careful with his health. When a heart attack struck, his good health meant he survived and recovered well.
When did you have your heart attack?
I had my heart attack in November 2001. I was 43 and my wife, Diana, was pregnant with our daughter, Laura.
It must have been a scary exerience. Did you know you were at risk?
I knew my cholesterol levels were on the higher side, but the only warning sign in the couple of days before my heart attack was that I experienced shortness of breath. I also found being inside stuffy – I felt like I needed air – and I had feelings of indigestion.
Is there heart disease in your family?
Yes, my father died from a heart attack when I was eight. He was in his early fifties when he died. I knew this would increase my risk of heart disease.
What was your lifestyle like before the attack?
I always had an active lifestyle and working as a builder also gave me some exercise. I have always kept a close eye on my diet. I have never been overweight or smoked.
Having been so careful, did you feel ripped off when you had a heart attack?
The down times did include the ripped-off feeling, remembering that I had to come to terms with the effects of some of the drugs I was put on. The doctors said my age and general wellbeing was definitely a bonus for recovery. Looking after your health is a bit like saving for a rainy day – you never know one day what you might need it for.
How did you feel being so young?
I am, by far, not the youngest person to suffer a heart attack and, unfortunately, there are a lot more people worse off than me. I know I’m lucky to have had the benefits of modern medicine. It made me stop and think about the things that cause unnecessary stress.
Did you change your diet after the attack?
Since the heart attack, I have learnt what to look out for in foods and what to avoid – things that can catch you out, like additives and saturated fats. There wasn’t a lot that needed to change in my diet.
What lifestyle changes have you made?
I have been self-employed for more than 17 years and, although I need to keep up my income, my health is my first priority so I try to reduce stress and fatigue. I try to let other people do the rushing around and worrying. Of course, some things are easier said than done.
What advice would you give people who want to keep their heart healthy?
My advice is to seriously watch your diet and lifestyle, because I think we all know the problems with being overweight and the strain this has on our hearts. Stress also plays a part and this again is something you can control. Go for regular check-ups and listen to your body.
David is now “50 years young” and in great health 7 1/2 years after his heart attack.
Eat smart – protect your heart
Eat 2 pieces of fruit and 5 serves of vegies a day.
Replace saturated fat with healthy unsaturated fats.
Choose wholegrain breads and cereals for more fibre.
Choose lean meat and take the skin off your chicken.
Eat 2-3 serves of oily fish such as salmon each week.
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