In the quest to maintain a healthy heart, we’re bombarded with terms such as blood pressure, cholesterol and BMI. Don’t be daunted by terminology—as we take the guesswork out of heart health.
Monitor your blood pressure
The numbers aren’t good. High blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack by up to 25 per cent and stroke by up to 40 per cent. So it’s important to monitor your blood pressure level.
High blood pressure is defined as a reading above 140/90, measured on multiple occasions. A single high reading does not necessarily mean a blood pressure problem. Additional readings will likely be monitored before high blood pressure is clinically diagnosed.
How often should I check?
Worrying over blood pressure and checking it too often can actually increase your blood pressure. It’s true.
If you have no history of blood pressure problems, your health care practitioner should check it every two years.
If you have a history of blood pressure issues, you should have it checked more often, but that will depend on how high it is and what other risk factors or complications you may have. Your health care practitioner will set a frequency that’s best for you.
What do the numbers mean?
|Blood pressure category||Systolic/diastolic|
|high (if measured by a health care practitioner)||140/90 or higher|
|high (if measured with a home device)||135/85 or higher|
|high (if you have diabetes or kidney disease)||130/80 or higher|
Check your cholesterol
Cholesterol is a type of fat found in the body. It is useful for making hormones and repairing cells, but high cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease.
How often should I check?
You should check your cholesterol levels if
- you’re a female over 50 years of age and/or post-menopausal
- you or your family have a history of heart disease
- you have other heart disease risk factors including diabetes or high blood pressure
- you’re a male over 40 years of age
- you are experiencing erectile dysfunction (which can be a sign of arteries narrowing)
- you smoke
- your waist measures more than 88 cm for women or 102 cm for men
What do the numbers mean?
The total amount of cholesterol in your blood will be measured, as well as the levels of HDL and LDL cholesterols and triglycerides.
Target cholesterol numbers
|HDL (“good” cholesterol)||
|LDL (“bad” cholesterol)||
BMI versus BFM
Short for body mass index, BMI is based on weight and height. It is often used to help determine whether our weight is healthy. Many BMI calculators can be found online, such as the one under “Healthy eating” at heartfoundation.org.au.
|underweight||less than 18.5|
|healthy weight||18.5 to 24.9|
|overweight||25 to 29.9|
Although BMI has long been used to help determine heart disease risk (the higher the BMI, the higher the risk), it may not be as useful as once thought. BMI only takes into account height and weight but tells us nothing about body composition.
Consider a very muscular athlete who is 6 feet tall and a couch potato of the same height and weight. They will not have the same risk factors for heart disease despite having the same BMI.
A better predictor of heart disease risk is BFM (body fat mass). People with a higher percentage of body fat are more at risk than those with a healthy body fat mass. At least one study has shown that, even in those with a healthy BMI of between 18.5 and 24.9, more than 60 per cent had a body fat percentage that would classify them as obese.
These folks are sometimes called “skinny” fat people. They are at a healthy weight, but their body fat percentage is so high that they’re at increased risk for high blood sugar, high cholesterol and other risk factors for heart disease. Basically, they are out of shape, which increases their cardiovascular disease risk.
Get your number
To get a sense of your body composition, get your tape measure out. Measure the distance around your waist (at the navel after you have exhaled about halfway), then the distance around your hip (at the widest point), then divide the waist number by the hip number. This will give you your waist to hip ratio, a better indicator of your body composition than BMI.
A waist to hip ratio of 0.8 or less for women and 0.9 or less for men is associated with a lower likelihood of obesity and lower cardiovascular disease risk.
Go easy on alcohol
Have you heard about the studies that claim drinking is good for your heart? A 2011 meta-analysis found that light to moderate alcohol intake was associated with a reduced risk of heart disease-related death in both men and women. Those who consume one to two drinks per day appear to have a reduced risk compared to nondrinkers.
However, regular intake of more than three drinks per day is associated with an increased risk of illness including high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease.
How many drinks are recommended?
On a daily basis, we should consume no more than one or two drinks a day, up to a weekly maximum of nine drinks for women and 14 for men.
What is a “drink”?
An alcoholic drink consists of:
- 375 ml of mid-strength beer (3.5% alcohol)
- 100 ml of wine (13% alcohol)
- 30 ml of spirits (40% alcohol)
Of course, there are many other lifestyle and dietary factors that contribute to cardiovascular disease risk. A healthy diet and active lifestyle will certainly do your heart more good than a couple of drinks.
Smoking contributes to hardening and narrowing of the arteries, making it harder for blood to reach your tissues, including your heart. It also reduces circulating oxygen levels, so the blood that does reach tissues is less nutritive. Smoking can cause arteries to spasm, temporarily reducing blood flow; increase the risk of blood clots; and even contribute to irregular heart rhythms.
Smoking also increases the risk of stroke—the more you smoke, the higher your stroke risk.
Dangers to nonsmokers
Unfortunately, the negative effects of smoking extend beyond smokers themselves. Second-hand smoke contains a toxic mix of chemicals and worldwide is estimated to contribute to the deaths of about 600,000 nonsmokers each year.
Second-hand smoke significantly increases nonsmokers’ risk of cardiovascular disease. It is estimated that regular exposure to second-hand smoke can increase a nonsmoker’s risk of heart disease by 70 to 80 per cent, almost as high as the risk for a light smoker.
Wonder why so many countries are banning smoking in public places? The stats speak for themselves: a 2009 Canadian study demonstrated that hospital admissions for heart attacks were reduced by 17 per cent after public smoking bans were put in place. Admission rates decreased consistently for each year the ban was in place with the greatest health benefits seen in younger people and nonsmokers.
So show a little love for your heart, and the hearts of those around you—butt out.
Heart attack risk after a smoker quits
- Within 48 hours of quitting smoking, heart attack risk begins to decrease.
- In the first year of being smoke free, the risk drops to half of what it was while smoking.
- Within five to 15 years, the risk becomes the same as for someone who never smoked.
If we were meant to sit around all day, we would be shaped like chairs. We were built to move! Our muscles, joints, tendons and blood vessels need regular physical activity to stay strong and healthy.
Exercise is a major contributor to cardiovascular health. There are two main types of exercise to consider: aerobic and resistance.
Aerobic exercise gets us moving, sweating and breathing quickly. It includes activities such as running, hiking, brisk walking, swimming and any other activity that gets the heart pumping.
Resistance exercise involves contracting a muscle against an opposing force. This type of exercise includes activities such as weightlifting, Pilates, some yoga postures, push-ups and pull-ups.
Exercise helps to maintain healthy body weight and body fat; improves muscle mass; maintains healthy blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels; and offsets stress—all things your heart will thank you for.
How much and how often should I exercise?
- Adults should aim for 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per week, in minimum 10-minute chunks of time.
- Include resistance exercise at least twice a week.
Lower your stress
Chronic or extreme stress can increase inflammation, blood thickness and tendency to clot, blood pressure, poor dietary habits and other factors, putting one at greater risk of heart disease. Research has shown that chronic work or life stress can increase the risk of heart attack more than twofold. Stress from an unhappy marriage can almost triple the risk.
These numbers are equal or greater than the risk associated with high cholesterol. This shows the importance of happiness on heart health and how a heart can literally be “broken” when a life is lived without enjoyment.
How you handle and react to stress can affect how big an impact it has on your health. A negative outlook and withdrawal from social interaction is linked to a higher risk of heart disease and worse outcomes from heart disease. This pattern of negativity and withdrawal is associated with a greater output of the stress hormone cortisol in reaction to stress as well as increased markers of inflammation, neither of which are good for your heart.
This type of research highlights the importance of happiness and social interaction in the fight against heart disease. Without these, stress does not dissipate and health suffers.
- Walk, run, do yoga, work out at the gym or participate in your favourite sport.
- Analyse what causes you stress and make a plan to minimise it.
Maintain your oral health
Poor dental health may be bad for your heart. Periodontitis, an inflammation of the gums due to bacteria-rich plaque on the teeth, can lead to serious gum and tooth disease, but it’s also being increasingly linked to cardiovascular problems.
The connection may be the risk factors shared by periodontitis and cardiovascular disease such as smoking, high blood pressure and diabetes. But some of the same bacteria found in dental plaque have also been found in artery plaques and the walls of unhealthy blood vessels.
Oral bacteria may travel from the mouth to the lymphatic system and then into the bloodstream where it can cause inflammatory reactions that can damage blood vessels and increase the risk of clots. In animal experiments, some oral bacteria have been shown to directly cause hardening of the arteries.
Oral health tips
- Brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss daily.
- Visit your dentist regularly.
Supplement for heart health
These are some of the best-studied natural products to help support cardiovascular health.
|Supplement||What it does||How much to take|
||an average of 3.25 g of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA per day|
||eat soy foods weekly|
||up to 300 mg per day|
Eat for heart health
Changing our eating habits can have a huge influence on our overall health, including our heart health.
Reduce artery-clogging saturated fats:
Bake, grill or steam food instead of frying.
- Reduce fat intake to 20 to 35 per cent of total kilojoule intake.
- Choose unsaturated fats such as those found in fish, seeds and nuts.
Maintain a healthy weight:
- Eat 21 to 38 g of fibre each day to keep the digestive system moving and to stave off feelings of hunger.
- Eat five to 10 vegetables and fruits each day.
- Avoid foods that contain white sugar and flour to improve overall nutrient quality.
Maintain a healthy blood pressure:
- Limit tinned, packaged and processed foods to avoid excess sodium intake.
- Limit sodium intake to
- 500 mg per day in adults 50 or younger
- 1300 mg per day in adults 51 to 70
- 1200 mg per day in adults older than 70