Heart healthy

With heart disease dramatically increasing in Ireland, it makes sense to invest in your heart health. Here’s everything you need to know…

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By Amy Wall

Stop. Close your eyes. Take a breath. Focus on your heart. Can you feel it beating? Your heart is the most critical muscle that you have in your body. It beats, on average, 100,000 times a day, all day, every day, keeping you alive. Despite the fact that our hearts are so important, very few of us actually consider their health, unless there’s a problem that is. So how can we cultivate good heart health? We spoke to Janis Morrissey, registered dietician and Head of Health Promotion at the Irish Heart Foundation to find out.

So why is it important for us to look after our heart health?

“Well, heart disease and stroke is the number one killer in Ireland, so it’s massively important in that sense. While that may sound like very negative news, the very positive news is that 80 per cent of premature heart disease and stroke is preventable throughout healthy lifestyles,” says Janis.

“There is a huge amount that we can do through how we live our lives every day by eating more healthily, being more active, not smoking etc., and there’s a huge amount we can do to influence our risk of heart disease and stroke, and that’s really by making those small changes and keeping them up every day. There’s great opportunity to reduce our chances of developing heart disease and stroke in later years.”

Janis says that the fact we can be proactive about our heart health now in order to decrease our risk of illness in the future is “a very positive message” and even those who have a family history of heart disease and stroke can make a difference through adopting a healthier lifestyle.

“How active we are every day, the foods we eat every day, have a massive influence on our heart health and I think that puts a lot of control back with individuals in terms of how they live their lives,” says Janis.

When we begin to proactively take our heart health into consideration, there are a few factors that we need to be mindful of. These factors can directly impact our heart health. Janis says that these factors can be divided into two categories – the things we can’t change and the things we can.

“You’ve the factors you can’t change, like your age, gender and your family history and they all play a role. The older we get, men are more prone to heart disease and stroke than women up until the time of menopause. Then after menopause men and women have the same level of risk and that’s often something women aren’t aware of because we tend to think of heart disease as being something affecting men, but in fact it’s very much a condition of women as well,” says Janis.

“Positively, there’s so much that we can do which we’ve already alluded to in terms of our diet, the foods we eat, in terms of how active we are, not smoking, checking your blood pressure, checking your cholesterol and managing your stress well. And of course alcohol would be an important risk factor as well.”

With high cholesterol and blood pressure falling into the risk factors for heart disease and stroke, it’s absolutely essential that we monitor both of them on the regular.

 “We would say that once you’re over the age of 30 you really should be getting them checked on an annual basis with your GP,” says Janis.

“The number one risk factor for stroke is actually high blood pressure and the thing as well is you can have high blood pressure and not know it, so the only way to know is to get it checked.”

When it comes to making positive changes to improve heart health, the very first change Janis advises people to make is to stop smoking.

“If somebody is a smoker we would say to try to stop. That’s the single most important thing really in terms of reducing your chances. People can be concerned about putting on weight if they give up cigarettes, but even if you do end up putting on a bit of weight, the benefits you reap from giving up smoking are just so significant…

“We know that 80 per cent of women that have heart attacks under 40 are smokers, so we would really, strongly encourage everybody to try and quit. Of course there’s lot of supports available through the HSE Quit Line and www.quit.ie that can support people in that process.”

Another area to be mindful of is your body weight.

“If you’re overweight or obese the extra weight puts an extra strain on your heart. As we know your heart is a pump that pumps blood around the body. If you’re carrying extra weight then your heart has to work harder to pump that blood around the body and that can cause strain over time, as well as increasing blood pressure,” says Janis.

“And of course all of these things are interlinked as well. So if you’re making changes to the food you eat and you’re being more active, then not only will that help to reduce your weight, it will also help to reduce your blood pressure and reduce your cholesterol.”

Weight loss can be difficult however, and Janis urges people not to get discouraged.

“If somebody is looking to lose weight it can be very disheartening if you feel you’re making a big effort and you haven’t lost as much as you’d hoped. But we would say steady weight loss, half to one kilogram a week, is a success and that even if you’re not seeing much difference on the scales, losing a small amount of weight can have a massive impact on your heart health as well.”

We are what we eat, and if you’re trying to look after your heart health a healthy diet is key in the process of being proactive. So what should we be eating?

“Overall we would say plenty of fresh food, fresh fruit and vegetables, salads. Half your plate should be fruits and vegetables. Not only are they full of fibre, vitamins and minerals, they also help to fill you up as well so can help you to manage your weight if you need to do so,” says Janis.

“Including oily fish can help to improve the rhythm of the heart and prevent blood clots as well, so it’s a powerful addition to the diet.”

With all of this information on board, beginning to look after your heart health can seem overwhelming. Janis has the following advice for anyone who wants to take the first steps in this process:

“Pick one thing you feel you can do and keep doing it. We would always say that small changes can make a big difference over time. Don’t try and take everything on in one go. Identify one change that you can make and put your supports in place to make that change… Breaking things down to small achievable changes. That’s really what’s going to make the difference over time.”

For more information log on to www.irishheart.ie

Catherine Devane