It’s easy to take your heart for granted – after all you can’t see it. But it’s important that you pay it some attention because coronary heart disease kills three times more women than breast cancer every year in the UK. Many people still see heart disease as a male health problem, but in fact heart disease kills as many women as it does men.
The main difference between heart disease in men and women is that women tend to develop it later in life. “Pre-menopause it’s thought that your heart is given some protection by the hormone oestrogen,” says Amy Thompson, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation. “After the menopause when oestrogen levels drop your heart health can decline.”
Ignoring signs of a heart attack means that you’re putting your health, and your life, at risk.
It’s especially important that you’re aware of the risk factors of heart disease and the symptoms of a heart attack once you’ve been through the menopause. “Women are often slow to call 999 when they have a heart attack,” says Amy. “That’s usually because we are very good at being too busy to be ill and because we’re unaware of the symptoms.” Ignoring signs of a heart attack means that you’re putting your health, and your life, at risk.
Because women usually develop heart problems at an older age it can take us longer to recover following a heart attack and affect our lives for longer. The best course of action is to try and prevent a heart attack in the first place or at the very least get help as quickly as possible.
Happily, protecting your heart isn’t too difficult, in fact three simple lifestyle changes could dramatically reduce your risk of heart disease (including angina and heart attack), stroke and heart failure. And if you already have heart disease these steps could help you to improve your heart health and reduce your risk of further heart problems.
Your Heart Disease Risk Assessment
There are several factors that increase your risk of heart disease. Check through the list ticking off each one that applies to you. The more you tick the higher your risk.
* High blood pressure
* High cholesterol
* Not doing enough exercise
* Being overweight or obese
* Having diabetes
* Having a family history of heart disease (This means if your father, mother, brother or sister has, or had, coronary heart disease at a young age (under 65 for women and under 55 for men).
* Age (your risk rises over 50)
* Ethnic background (People from South Asian or black African backgrounds are at a higher risk.)
“Don’t forget that the NHS provides free heart health checks for everyone over 40 years old. If you haven’t had one ask GP,” says Amy.
Your Healthy Heart Action Plan
Step 1 - Give up smoking.
If you’re a smoker, stopping smoking is the single most important thing you can do to improve your heart health. Smokers are twice as likely to have a heart attack than people who have never smoked. If your partner smokes, encourage them to quit too because research shows that non-smokers who live with smokers have a higher risk of heart disease than other non-smokers.
As soon as you stop smoking your risk of heart disease starts to go down. Within a year of stopping your risk is reduced by about half. Most people find that quitting is easier if they have support. Many GP surgeries have stop smoking clinics, you local pharmacist can give you advice on nicotine replacement therapy and other quitting aids, and you can find out more at www.smokefree.nhs.uk.
Step 2 – Eat healthily
A healthy diet could help you to protect your heart in many ways. Firstly it could help you to maintain a healthy weight. “That’s important because being over weight increases your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol which all contribute to your risk of heart disease,” says Amy. It’s especially important to lose weight if you carry a lot of fat around your middle. To protect your heart, women should aim for a waist measurement below 80cm (32 inches) and men 94cm (37 inches).
Aim to eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables – at least five 80g portions a day – that’s four broccoli florets, one pear, eight strawberries and three heaped tablespoons of carrots. Choose wholegrain carbohydrates such as wholegrain bread, brown rice and pasta and wholegrain cereals.
Opt for low fat dairy products and eat lean meat, poultry, eggs, fish and beans for protein. Switch saturated fat from butter, cheese and red meat for healthy fats such as olive oil, oily fish, sunflower oil and nuts and seeds. Choosing healthier fats and include foods containing plant stanols such as Benecol Plus Heart Vitamin B1 (£3.95/6-pack) yogurt drinks could help you to lower cholesterol.
It’s also important to keep an eye on your salt intake. You should aim to less than 6g a day – that’s just over a teaspoonful. Check food labels and avoid typically salty foods such as crisps and takeaways. Use herbs in cooking to help increase the flavour without using salt.
Some US research has found that eating too much sugar could significantly increase your risk of a heart disease. “There isn’t any evidence proving that a diet high in sugar could directly cause a heart attack or stroke,” says Amy. “But it could have a knock on effect on some of the other risk factors. For example, high levels of sugar in your blood can worsen the control of your diabetes, or increase your risk of developing diabetes, and the extra calories from sugar can lead to weight gain.” For a simple heart healthy eating plan visit www.yoursdietclub.co.uk and we can do all the hard work for you.
Step 3 – exercise
Making time for regular exercise could help to lower your blood pressure, improve your cholesterol levels and help you to lose weight if you need to. It could also help to reduce your risk of diabetes. Currently less than a third of women in England do enough physical activity to protect their heart. Yet some experts believe that exercise may be just as effective as drugs for treating heart disease and stroke.
Aim to do 30 minutes of exercise five times a week. You don’t have to do 30 minutes in one go if you find that too difficult. A 10-minute block counts too. You could try three short 10-minute walks or one longer 30 minute one. You need to walk fast enough to feel warmer, breathe harder and feel your heart beat slightly faster than normal. You should still be able to hold a conversation though. The more you move the more your heart health will benefit.
Build up your exercise gradually and stop if you feel very breathless, dizzy or unwell. Always check with your GP before you start any regular exercise plan – especially if you have high blood pressure.
When to call 999
If you have any of the symptoms of a heart attack – such as pain, discomfort or a dull ache which feels like indigestion in your chest and doesn’t go away, or pain that spreads into your arm, neck or jaw, or you feel sick, sweaty, breathless, light headed, dizzy, and generally unwell as well as having a pain in your chest – you should call 999 immediately.
“I changed my lifestyle for my heart”
Maureen Hennis, 65, from County Durham had her first heart attack at 54.
“I’ve always eaten healthily, I wasn’t over weight and I was fairly active. But in 2004 I had a heart attack. I loved my job and worked long hours as the CEO of the charity Pets as Therapy. I was at Crufts when I started to feel unwell. I had a pain in my chest that felt like I was being sat on by an elephant. It ran up my neck and throat and into both arms. I was taken to hospital and told I’d had a heart attack. I was so scared. I knew nothing about heart disease I thought I was either going to die or become bed bound. After a week in hospital I had an angioplasty and two stents to open up a blocked artery. I attended a cardio rehabilitation programme and learnt that I didn’t have to give up on life – just change a bit. I started to exercise in the morning before sitting at my desk and I made sure I walked for 30 minutes in my lunch break every day. But my job was still busy and stressful and in 2012 I started to experience similar symptoms. Doctors found another blocked artery and I had to have a second angioplasty and more stents. This time I really knew I had to change. Making the decision to retire from a job I loved so much was very hard. I hated it at first, but now I love it. I was so poorly and now I feel great. I’ve developed arthritis so exercising is harder – but without the stress of work I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to keep my heart healthy for the future."