Heart disease kills an Australian every 10 minutes, so why do most of us ignore the simple things we can do to prevent it? Men and women have different risk factors, says dietitian Lisa Yates, but small changes can improve the health of your heart.
Many of us know someone who suffers from (or has suffered from) cardiovascular disease, with more than 3.7 million Australians affected. Over the next 40 years, it’s expected to affect nearly a quarter of the population. Not surprisingly then, the majority of us already have at least one risk factor for heart disease. But what those risk factors are, and how we come to develop them, is different for men and women.
Heart disease risk factors
While the following risk factors affect both men and women, they may have a greater affect on one gender than the other. These risks can be broken down into two categories: those that can be changed (or reversed) and those than are unchangeable.
Overweight and obesity: The number of people who are overweight or obese is on the rise, with more men than women falling victim. Men with waist measures of 94cm or more and women with measurements of 80cm or more are at increased risk.
Physical inactivity: Generally speaking, women are less active than men.
Poor diet: A diet high in saturated fat, trans fat and salt, while low in fibre, fruit and vegetables, is all too common. Only 30% of men and 35% of women get four or more serves of vegetables a day, and only half of men and women get two serves of fruit each day.
Stress, depression and social isolation: While stress levels fluctuate, women are more likely to experience episodes of depression than men.
Excessive alcohol intake: Men tend to drink more alcohol (and more often) than women.
Impaired glucose tolerance: This is a stepping stone to type 2 diabetes (and heart disease) and is higher in men than women for most age groups. High blood pressure One in three men and one in four women are likely to have high blood pressure.
High blood cholesterol: Nearly half of all men and women have cholesterol levels higher than the recommended level of 5.5mmol/L. Men tend to have higher rate of high cholesterol than women up to 55 years of age, at which point, women take the lead.
Smoking: About 20% of Australians smoke, with women more likely than men to smoke at least 10 cigarettes a day.
Low birth weight: Baby girls are usually at higher risk of this than baby boys.
Genetics: A family history of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or overweight/obesity can increase your risk.
Menopause: Oestrogen levels, which are thought to protect the heart, drop after menopause, while abdominal weight gain, another risk factor, is likely.
Having an ‘apple’ shaped figure if you’re female: Abdominal obesity is a risk factor for heart disease.
Fact: Women are four times more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer.
Warning signs for women
Unlike men, women may have pain in their shoulder or stomach – not in the chest. If you feel this pain anywhere in the upper body for 10 minutes or more, or if the pain is severe, get it checked immediately. These subtle symptoms may not be recognised as cardiovascular-related disease and the longer you delay, the more heart muscle damage could occur.
Common diet mistakes that influence women’s risk
Living on diet products. The ‘low-fat’ weight loss mantra of the '80s and '90s is outdated. Doctors, dietitians and other medical experts agree that it’s necessary to include healthy fats in your diet.
Counting kilojoules, not nutrients. It’s important to make sure you’re feeding your body vitamins and minerals; not just the right amount of energy.
Putting your family’s health before your own. It’s not just the kids who need to eat well; you do, too.
Emotional eating. Unresolved stress or anxiety, which research shows can contribute to heart disease, can lead to emotional eating as a coping mechanism. Aside from the unresolved anxiety, the stress on your heart from fluctuating weight can be deadly.
Skipping breakfast. The first meal of the day is vital for your metabolism, weight and health.
Takeaway coffee every day. Downing those large, kilojoule-dense coffees made with full-fat milk and added flavours can give you more than just an energy hit. Full-fat dairy is rich in saturated fat, and percolated coffee can raise blood cholesterol.
Giving in to chocolate cravings too often. Chocolate may cheer you up, and even contain some antioxidants, but the benefits are outweighed by side effects like weight gain, especially if you eat more than a few bites a day!
Drinking too much alcohol. That one glass with dinner may actually hold 2–3 standard serves of alcohol; meaning a lot of extra kilojoules on top of your meal.
Eating off the kids’ dinner plate to avoid waste. Look for new ways to use leftovers, cook less food or put it straight into the compost bin.
Shopping without a list or on an empty stomach. This is a disaster waiting to happen and leads to a trolley laden with high-fat, high-sugar snacks and convenience meals. Plan your meals on the weekend for the following week, always bring a shopping list with you and shop after you've eaten to avoid hunger -inspired impulse buys.
Not enough sleep. When overly tired, women tend to compensate eating carbohydrate-rich foods and drinking high-fat coffee drinks for an energy rush. Plus, this makes it far too easy to skip out on exercise!
Lifestyle tips for women
Recognise your eating patterns (do you always have a biscuit with your cup of tea? Do you find yourself eating dinner after everyone else has finished?) and work to change them. Small dietary changes can become life-long healthy habits!
Exercise for 30 minutes every day. Don’t roll your eyes – this is vital not only for your physical health, but for your mental health as well. Exercise isn’t a chore; it can be valuable ‘alone’ time, or time to catch up with a friend (or your partner or kids) by working out together.
Stress can be disastrous for our health, especially if we let it fester inside. If stressors are causing you to put your health on the back burner, it helps to talk about it – with a partner, a friend, a family member or a professional counsellor. Weight gain and health problems can make stress even harder on your body, leading to even more weight and health problems. It’s a vicious cycle.
If you are pregnant (or planning on getting pregnant), protect your baby’s health before he or she is born. Eating well and taking pre-natal vitamins is essential for your health and the life-long health of your baby.
If you are a smoker, quit. Smokers are at a far greater risk of heart disease than non-smokers. Why put yourself in harm’s way?
Fact: Men are four times more likely to die from heart disease than from prostate cancer.
Warning signs for men
Men may have central chest pain, pressure or pain radiating down one arm. If this occurs, get medical attention immediately.
Common diet mistakes that influence men’s risk
Eating too much meat. All you need is a steak the size of a deck of cards, 3–4 times a week. If you’re still hungry, take it as a sign that you need more veg on your plate! Avoid charring your meat, and start eating fish twice a week.
Making food choices based purely on taste. Less healthy options, like white bread, sausages and soft drink, should be seen as ‘treat’ foods, not everyday staples.
Eating like the teenager you once were with giant portions and a habit of going back for seconds (or thirds). If you no longer maintain the training levels of years past, you can’t maintain the same food intake. And if you eat poorly during the day, don’t try to make up for it all in one giant meal at night. Ideally, you should aim for 5–6 small meals each day.
Choosing soft drink instead of water. Fizzy drinks are merely empty kilojoules, leading to weight gain. And they’re not necessarily thirst-quenching, either!
Celebrating or commiserating with your sporting team each week with high-fat pies, chips and beer. Enjoy the camaraderie, not the kilojoules.
Relying on takeaways, pizza delivery and pre-packaged foods when you are too tired to cook (or the chef of the house is not home). Learn some basic, healthy recipes, double or triple the quantities, then stock the freezer with the results!
Drinking too much alcohol. Whether it’s four beers a night or binge drinking once a week, it’s dangerous. When you do drink, stick to 1–2 standard drinks.
Knocking back the energy drinks on a daily basis. New research (see Newsbites, p8) has discovered they are even more dangerous to your heart than previously realised, so limit your intake.
Adding salt to meals or choosing salty foods. Herbs and spices can flavour food just as well as salt, without adversely affecting your blood pressure.
Comfort eating when your job becomes stressful, or when working late. Bring (or buy) an extra sandwich or microwave frozen meals on those days when you know you’ll be working late.
Lifestyle tips for men
A healthy diet and regular exercise is key for both men and women, but men are more likely to eat poorly compared to women. And don’t try to get all your exercise in one session! If you are starting up your exercise regime, recognise that your body isn’t at peak performance anymore. Start slowly and build. No one will think less of you if you start out doing 10 push-ups, instead of 100.
Have a medical check up – knowing your blood pressure and cholesterol stats is an important step in getting a handle on your health.
Develop your relationships. Spending quality time with mates, your children and your partner is as important to your health as eating more fruits and vegetables. When job stress starts getting the better of you, dedicate some time to learning time management skills. Sometimes, the simplest tactics can make the biggest difference; you’d be surprised by how many people have slashed their stress by effectively managing their time.
Want to know whether you’re at risk of getting heart disease?
Go to www.cvdcheck.org.au and download the CVD check calculator from the top right hand menu. Input your sex, age, blood pressure, cholesterol and health details and it will calculate your risk of having cardiovascular disease in the next five years.