Heart Disease and How to Prevent It

General Medical

Dr. Sam Hay

Without doubt, heart disease is the greatest threat Aussies will face in their lifetime.

Whichever way you look at it, the stats are bad. 

  • Over half a million Aussies have heart disease.
  • In the time it takes to watch the news, eat dinner, or even get your hair cut, one Aussie has died from heart disease – that's one every 27 minutes.
  • And in 2018, over 20,000 will die from heart disease.

Dr Sam explains just what heart disease is, busts some myths, and gives the five hottest tips for you to take into 2018.

The term heart disease is a little frustrating because it actually encompases many different conditions that effect your heart. Heart disease includes valve disease, blood vessel problems, rhythm dramas, or even issues that you were born with (congenital heart disease). Then there's diseases of the heart muscle itself, plus many less common or obscure issues.

Heart disease is also more than just 'cardiovascular disease'.

When we look at the blood vessel problems, we are talking about the effects of 'cardiovascular disease' on the heart.

Cardiovascular disease involves narrowings and blockages of blood vessels, which reduce the amount of blood supply getting to vital organs. In the brain you can have a stroke, or in the legs a toe drops off. But when it happens to the heart blood vessels, not enough blood gets to the muscle of the heart, with people suffering angina, chest pain, or the more extreme 'heart attack'.

No matter the cause for heart disease, the consequence is that the heart doesn't work as well as it should. It doesn't pump well enough, and decompensates. Eventually the heart may 'fail', which is usually termed 'heart failure'.

“How do I avoid heart disease?”

This is the $64 million dollar question thrown at me every day.

Well, the simple answer is keep you heart healthy! No matter your age, the best thing you can do to stave off this killer is to prevent it in the first place - by managing all of the biggest risk factors. 

And if you've already got a heart condition? Then manage that as best as you can.

Dr Sam's five hot tips for 2018 to keep your heart in tip-top shape.

1. Check your pulse

Your heart beats in a very rhythmical fashion, sending pulses of blood out through the body countless times in our lifetime.  A normal pulse should count somewhere between 50 and 70 at rest. It's true that fitter people have lower heart rates, but if you detect a rate above or below this range, then ask your doctor to check it out for you. The normal pulse should also be strong and regular. An irregular pulse could indicate an abnormal rhythm, called an arrythmia. Many of you may have heard of atrial fibrillation – probably the most common type. If you feel your pulse is irregular then get it checked.  Feel unwell, faint, short of breath, or have chest pain with it? Then call an ambulance!

2. Know your risks.

Cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of heart disease, so it stands to reason that it should be everyone's primary focus. Plus, there's an added bonus that if you keep these risk factors under control, you'll be well on your way to minimising your risk of most of the other causes for heart disease.

  • Risks you can't change
    • Getting older. Sorry folks, can't cure you of this one!
    • Family history. A little more on this later.
    • Gender. Blokes, you're most at risk.
    • Ethnicity. Unfortunately some groups are at higher risk, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders; plus, other regional groups such as those from the sub-continent.
  • Risks you can change
    • Smoking. This is without doubt a big risk factor. Do something about it now! Evidence says that within one year of quitting, your risk of a heart attack is reduced by half. After ten years your risk of heart disease returns to that of someone who has never smoked.
    • High Cholesterol. This is a massive topic in itself, but basically, more cholesterol in the blood leads to higher risks of blockages. Chat to your doctor about what's needed to get this checked, and keep it in check.
    • High Blood Pressure. Once again, its a complex topic. High blood pressure puts extra strain on your heart, and contributes to many heart failure causes other than cardiovascular disease. Do you know your blood pressure?  If not, its time to get it checked! See your GP, or even pop into your local pharmacy for a measurement today.
    • Diabetes. Crikey, the complex list gets bigger! Bottom line, avoid the 'sugar diabetes'.
    • Being Overweight. Extra body fat is a massive issue when it comes to the heart. Healthy guidelines state we need to keep our BMI under 25. Do you know your BMI? Use this quick calculator now to find out if you're at risk. 
    • Poor Exercise. Exercise is good for the heart, it keeps the muscle pumping well. But not only that, exercise influences all the other risk factors on this list. Get out there and get active with at least thirty minutes of exercise every day.
    • Unhealthy Diet. Aussies need to focus on a healthy balanced diet, low in energy dense and sugary foods, plus avoid excess animal fats. Your GP or an experienced dietitian can help you out here.
    • Depression and Isolation. Believe it or not, but heart disease is far more common for depression sufferers. Look after yourself and seek help sooner rather than later if you're concerned.

3. Get a check up.

Knowing what the risks are is one thing. Confirming which ones you have is the next challenge.

See your doctor! A good GP should step through all of the risk factors we've discussed, order appropriate tests, and then follow them up like a rabid dog! Don't settle for the doctor down the road who doesn't explain your heart health and what you need to do. It's vital that you arm yourself with the facts, and the tools to get things on track. A good GP should also screen for all causes of heart disease, and not just the classic cardiovascular disease and it's risk factors. For example they should listen to your heart looking for signs of valve disease. When was the last time you saw a doctor?

4. Talk to your family

No secrets here team, it's time to talk. If you've had any sort of heart problem then it's really important to share that with your brothers, sisters, and kids. Every bit of info adds up, and sometimes its the combination of family risk that's important. A strong family history can trump all of the minor risk factors. Every doctor in my practice looks after a handful of families where every sibling has had a heart attack – all seemingly 'well' before their event hit them. In fact, many people with strong family histories for heart disease go on to treatment even before they develop problems. But this is a process best coordinated by your GP and a cardiologist.

5. Don't rest on your laurels!

Just because you think you're fit and healthy and have all your risk factors in check doesn't mean your not immune to heart disease. We've already spoken about family history being a major factor, but there's also laziness. Too often do I find 'well behaved' patients dropping the ball. They stop concentrating, and before they know it, their weight balloons, blood pressure climbs, exercise ceases, and heart disease starts to set in. So once you're on track, stay on track!

Hearts, heart disease, and heart attacks are very confusing for people. They're important issues, and gather plenty of media attention. But there are also plenty of myths out there.

Myth 1: You only get heart attacks and heart disease if you're overweight.

Even the fittest and leanest amongst us can suffer debilitating heart disease. There's familial hypercholesterolaemia which causes significant blood vessel blockages. Valve disease is often silent until it becomes extreme. And then there are many other heart diseases such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy that present in healthy people, and often very suddenly.

Myth 2: Men and women truly are equal.

When it comes to heart pains, especially heart attacks, women often experience very different symptoms. We call them 'atypical', so it's very important for ladies to tell their doctor everything.

Myth 3: I don't need to worry until I'm old.

Unfortunately, heart disease doesn't discriminate. Even young people can suffer all of the contributing conditions. Every doctor in my practice knows a handful of people in their thirties and forties who have significant heart disease issues.

BMedSci, MBBS(Hons), FRACGP, GDipSpMed, DCH
Director Your Doctors®


Please note: Dr. Sam's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic please consult your healthcare professional.

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