Maintaining heart health in later life

Maintaining heart health in later life

 · 7 min read

Cardiovascular disease remains a significant and continuously growing problem in the United Kingdom, accounting for nearly one-third of deaths. However, the burden of cardiovascular disease can be eased by modifying the preventable risk factors to our benefit.

  • Heart disease can be treated, decreased, and in some cases, reversed
  • Heart attacks are sometimes lethal, but if you know the early warning signs, they can
  • be prevented
  • Small lasting changes to your lifestyle can make a significant impact on your heart disease risk
  • Exercise is one of the best ways to start to address an unhealthy lifestyle
  • Keeping your heart healthy: FAQs

    • How do I know if I am at risk of heart disease?

      You may not feel or see anything that could indicate you are at risk. However, if you meet any of the following criteria, you should get advice from a professional. 

      1. Over 50 years of age
      2. Long term smoker
      3. Overweight
      4. Diabetic 
      5. Known to have heart-related problems
      6. Family history of heart disease
    • What tests do I need to check my heart health?

      The most common tests you can get include a simple blood test, blood pressure test, and possibly an ECG (Electrocardiograph). Additional tests may be required depending on your individual presentations. 

    • Are there any precautions I can take to improve my heart health?

      The first step in improving your heart health is seeing your doctor and asking for advice. They may be concerned for you and recommend several lifestyle changes. This includes implementing small changes over time that will make a lasting difference to your health. Things you can do yourself without your doctor telling you include:

      • Quit smoking
      • If you drink alcohol, decrease your consumption
      • Embrace healthy eating by reducing red meat consumption and increasing your fresh vegetable intake
      • Increase your exercise
      • Reduce weight
    • Which foods should I avoid to prevent heart disease?

      It is best to minimise your intake of foods containing larger amounts of trans fats and excess sugar such as:

      • Fried foods
      • Greasy burgers
      • Non-diet sodas
      • Chocolate

      Keeping a 'moderation is key' approach is a good rule. Balance is vital in maintaining a healthy weight.

    • How can I help my family or friend who has heart disease?

      Encouraging and supporting family or friends with heart disease is essential for their recovery. Listening to their struggles and being a companion if they are struggling with lifestyle changes is likely to help them. Going on walks with them, eating new healthy meals with them, setting goals together can really motivate a person when they have a hard time keeping motivated. 

      Lastly, basic life support training is easy to learn and access and is an invaluable skill. You may save someone's life one day, maybe even that of a loved one.  

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    The British Heart Foundation suggests that in the United Kingdom, a person dies every 3 minutes due to cardiovascular disease. Elsewhere, the American Heart Association lays bare the scale of the problem in the United States, highlighting the global impact of heart disease.

    Cardiovascular disease has a very high burden on individuals, communities, and society. So what can we do about it? Thankfully, most risk factors leading to cardiovascular disease are preventable or reversible. Read on to learn what you can do to keep your heart healthy.

    What is heart disease?

    The term "Heart Disease" refers to several heart conditions. The most common heart disease is coronary artery disease, during which some or one of the blood vessels that supply the heart become partially blocked. 

    Plaque starts to build up when vessels are damaged or under stress. This can result from things like high blood pressurehigh blood sugar levels (diabetes), and high cholesterol. When a vessel becomes blocked, the total blood supply for a particular tissue or muscle can be diminished. This, in turn, leads to a heart attack. Heart attacks can be severe and sudden (you may collapse) or slow and progressive (causing chest pain over a day). 

    Heart disease has proved to be a significant burden amongst the UK population, primarily due to its "silent-but-deadly" nature. Most patients may not exhibit symptoms until they experience a heart attack, heart failure, or an abnormal heart rate. 

    So how can we prevent the effects of heart disease if we don't know we have it?

    The necessity of regular screening

    Having regular blood tests to track cholesterol levels, blood clotting factors, and blood sugar is an important and simple step to monitoring your risk of heart disease. During a cardiology workup, your doctor may also test your activity tolerance to assess how your heart works in response to exercise (cardiac stress test). 

    Regular screening is the most crucial factor in maintaining heart health. Unfortunately, due to the nature of heart disease, you usually won't feel symptoms until the heart is already under strain, by which stage significant damage may already be done. 

    Blood pressure

    High blood pressure, or hypertension, can threaten your overall health. Hypertension is the most important modifiable risk factor for causes of mortality and morbidity worldwide. Yet, nearly half of those with hypertension are utterly unaware of their condition, given its lack of symptoms.

    Hypertension can be easily managed using a combination of medications and lifestyle changes. Getting regular blood pressure checks from your local GP can help identify hypertension at earlier stages and trigger lifestyle changes as soon as possible.

    Cholesterol 

    Cholesterol is not as bad as we think. It's an essential molecule made by our liver and used to build essentials like hormones and vitamins. We also get extra cholesterol from consuming animal products. There are 2 main types of cholesterol that we typically hear about. These are high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL is generally referred to as the "bad cholesterol" and is most commonly associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. 

    When cholesterol levels exceed the recommended amount, it can result in a buildup of plaque that our natural blood cells congregate around, leading to a decrease in blood flow. This, ultimately, can result in a heart attack.

    High cholesterol bears no symptoms. Therefore, it is essential to carry out regular blood cholesterol tests to check and maintain our cholesterol levels. High cholesterol can be managed using medications and by implementing healthier lifestyle choices.

    Blood sugar 

    Obesity and type 2 diabetes are major risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease. Diabetes can potentially increase the risk of developing heart failure and hypertension. Additionally, studies have found certain mechanisms associated with diabetes independently increase the risk of cardiovascular disease in diabetic patients, thus accentuating the necessity of regular blood sugar monitoring.

    Regular blood sugar monitoring, especially if you are taking insulin, is the most crucial aspect of managing diabetes. Diabetes can often be managed using a combination of medication and a healthy lifestyle.

    How to maintain a healthy heart

    Enough solid evidence exists offering fundamental strategies for maintaining a healthy heart. Most risk factors associated with the development of cardiovascular disease are often preventable and include:

    1. Following an unhealthy diet
    2. Having a sedentary lifestyle
    3. Smoking

    While these are the top three, there are many more. So let's take a look at the steps we can take to help improve our cardiovascular health.

    Heart Healthy Diet

    Multiple studies have confirmed the connection between diet and heart disease. Unfortunately, although the research has been revealing, it has led to much confusion and misconception regarding the best diets for keeping your heart healthy. 

    The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance suggests the best diets for the prevention of heart disease include large amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fish, and poultry. In addition, research shows that we should reduce consumption of red and processed meats, refined carbohydrates, sugary snacks, and foods with a large concentration of trans fats.

    Specific dietary changes to help you eat more healthy foods and healthy fats include:

    • Introducing wholegrain cereal to your diet (1-4 times per week)
    • Introducing a fish or vegetable-only meal 1-3 times per week
    • Increasing your Omega 3 intake, which you can do by eating more fish or nuts

    These strategies can help reduce blood pressure and body fat, improve mood, and decrease cholesterol levels. People with a diet consistent with the above reduced their risk of:

    • Developing heart disease by 31% 
    • Developing diabetes by 33% 
    • Stroke by 20%

    Furthermore, sodium and potassium - two interrelated minerals - play significant roles in regulating blood pressure. Therefore, reducing our intake of salty foods and increasing potassium-rich foods into our diet can significantly lower our risk of developing heart disease.

    Exercise

    Your heart is a muscle, like any other muscle in the body. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes. Physical activity is an easy and cost-effective way to decrease your risk of heart disease. Unfortunately for most, our exercise and activity levels tend to decrease as we age. Physical inactivity has been shown to increase the risk of developing heart disease by 1.5 times.

    Walking for 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week, can reduce stress, blood sugar, body fat, and blood pressure. 

    Weight loss for someone who is used to a sedentary lifestyle should be approached slowly, and exercise levels should be built on over time. You don't need marathon training to see results, either. You can significantly benefit your cardiovascular health by simply implementing light exercises into your daily routine.

    Quitting smoking

    Smoking can increase the risk of heart disease by 50% over ten years.

    One of the best things you can do for your health is avoid tobacco in all forms. Tobacco isn't just a financial burden. It has been proven to slow you down, make you sick, and shorten your life.

    Although some find relief from stress in their smoking habit, it only increases the strain on your body. This is because your body has to work hard to detoxify itself from ingredients in tobacco, thus preventing it from focusing on performing other functions such as collagen production.

    Quitting smoking can be challenging. The process can be different for everyone. Some choose to go cold turkey, whereas others rely on medications and smoking cessation tools. However, if you are ready to quit smoking, there is no shortage of organisations, support groups, and programs available for those who want to stop. Contact your local pharmacy or medical practice to work out a personalised treatment plan suited to you for more information.

    Weight loss

    Excess weight can drastically impact your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. One study that included over 1 million women proved that Body Mass Index (BMI) was one of the most important modifiable risk factors for the development of cardiovascular disease.

    Maintaining a healthy BMI can drastically reduce your risk of heart disease as well as a host of other conditions. If you are unsure how to measure your BMI, check out the NHS guidelines here.

    Sleep

    Sleep can help reduce blood pressure. Adults are recommended to have 7-9 hours of sleep every night. A lack of sleep can also increase stress and affect our mood, relationships, and appetite. If you struggle to get enough sleep, these ideas may come in handy:

    • Sleep in a dark, quiet room
    • Avoid using electronics in the two hours before bedtime
    • If you do use technology, use a blue-light filter
    • Avoid exercise before sleep

    Healthy living for a healthier future

    A healthy heart is central to overall good health. Investing in your heart is not only physically rewarding but can help drastically reduce your risk of heart disease and lower your risk of heart attack and stroke. 

    It's never too late to start taking care of your heart. By eating healthier, taking those extra daily steps, and stopping smoking, you can make a significant difference.

    Hassan Thwaini
    Hassan Thwaini
    Hassan joined Health Times in 2020 and is a qualified Clinical Pharmacist who has completed his Master's degree at the University of Sunderland. Since then he has not only pursued community and clinical pharmacy but has expanded to aid in humanitarian work across the less fortunate areas of the globe. Hassan is currently working as a medical writer and has been published on various nutritional websites, produced unique content for his university board, and carried out research for renowned surgeons.
    The content on healthtimes.co.uk is for informational and educational purposes only and should not be construedas professional medical advice or guidance. Should you need professional medical advice or guidance, you should consult with such a professional in their relevant field. Likewise, you should always seek professional medical advice before starting a diet, exercise regime or course of medication, or introducing or eliminating specific elements from your lifestyle. We strive to write accurate, genuine and helpful content, and all views and opinions expressed within this article are specifically the views of the author.