It’s important to keep your heart healthy to lower your risk of heart disease and increase your chance of living a longer, healthier life.
1. Quit smoking
‘This is the lifestyle change which can have the single biggest positive impact on your health,’ says GP Dr Naomi Potter. Smoking damages the lining of the arteries, which leads to a build-up of atheroma, a fatty material that causes narrowing and reduced blood flow to the heart. When you quit, your risk of heart disease reduces almost immediately. Check out the Stoptober campaign or contact your local Stop Smoking Service for support.
2. Check your cholesterol
High levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol (also known as low-density lipoprotein) can cause fatty deposits to build up in the arteries, so ask your GP to check your cholesterol levels at your next appointment. If you’re aged between 40 and 74, this is done as part of the NHS Health Check programme, which uses cholesterol levels, blood pressure and weight to calculate the risk of heart disease. Most people can lower their cholesterol levels by improving their diet and exercising more frequently.
3. Know your blood pressure
Along with high cholesterol, high blood pressure is also known as a ‘silent killer’, as there aren’t any symptoms. Left untreated, it can cause the coronary arteries to thicken and become stiff. It can also affect your kidneys, increasing the burden on your heart. Get your blood pressure checked annually. Ideally, it should be below 120/80. To help lower your blood pressure, reduce your salt intake, get more active and follow a healthy diet.
4. Stick with your weight-loss plan
Being overweight puts extra strain on the heart. ‘It can also lead to thickening of the heart wall, making it more vulnerable to heart attack,’ says consultant cardiologist Dr Jane Flint. Check your waist measurement too, as excess tummy fat makes you more likely to develop diabetes and heart problems. A healthy waist circumference for men is less than 94cm (37 inches), and for women it’s less than 80cm (31.5 inches).
5. Be age aware
Before women go through the menopause, oestrogen appears to have a protective effect on the heart. But after women reach 52-55 years old, the decline in this hormone raises their risk of heart disease to the same as men. And there’s a family connection too. Talk to your GP if an immediate male relative has had a heart attack younger than 55 years old, or a female relative has had a heart attack younger than 65 years old.
6. Stay active
‘Regular exercise prevents the arteries from stiffening and improves cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as reducing the risk of diabetes,’ explains Dr Karen Birch, Senior Lecturer in Exercise Physiology at the University of Leeds. Reducing sedentary time is vital too. ‘A daily brisk walk of at least 30 minutes, preferably longer, will benefit women’s hearts. And try interval training, which is particularly beneficial to larger women.’