How to reduce your cardiovascular disease risk

The cardiovascular system is essential for optimal blood and nutrients circulation throughout the body, and it is therefore vital you take steps to minimize your cardiovascular disease risk.

Cardiovascular disease is caused by atheromas. These are small fatty lumps that appear in the inner linings of arteries. Cardiovascular disease includes diseases of both the heart (cardiac) and blood vessels (vasculature) such as angina, peripheral vascular disease, heart attack, stroke and transient ischemic attack (TIA).

Not only are cardiovascular diseases a key cause of poor health in Australia, but they are also the biggest cause of death.

Cardiovascular disease risk factors

It is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of atheroma, although certain lifestyle habits can increase your risk of developing heart disease. These include:

  • Smoking
  • Overweight or obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Excessive alcohol consumption

There are also some cardiovascular disease risk factors that are modifiable, or partly so, such as:

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • High cholesterol
  • High triglyceride (fat) levels
  • Diabetes
  • Certain kidney diseases affecting kidney function

Non-modifiable risk factors include:

  • Aging – as you age, you are more likely to develop atheroma
  • Family history – those with close male relatives who developed heart disease or had a stroke before they were aged 55, or in close female relatives before they were aged 65, have an increased risk
  • Gender –  men have a higher risk of heart disease
  • Early menopause

Risk factors that you can prevent or change

Lack of exercise

Those who remain physically active have a lower risk of developing heart disease. You should undertake around 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, such as walking, jogging or swimming, at least five days per week.

This type of exercise will make you feel warm, mildly out of breath, and mildly sweaty. However, research suggests the more vigorous the exercise, the better for your health – particularly for preventing heart disease.

Smoking

Lifetime smoking can roughly double cardiovascular disease risk and also increases the risk of having a stroke, as chemicals from tobacco move from the lungs into the circulation, damaging arteries and other parts of the body.

Stopping smoking is often the single most effective step a person can take to reduce their health risk. The increased risk decreases rapidly after quitting and within a few years of stopping, that extra risk is almost eliminated.

Being overweight or obese

Being overweight or obese increases the risk of heart disease and other conditions such as type 2 diabetes.

When you have excess weight around the stomach, rather than on the hips and thighs, the health risks tend to be higher. As a rule of thumb, men’s waists measuring 102 cm or above and women’s waists measuring 88 cm or more will significantly increase health risks.

If you are overweight or obese, you may need professional support in developing a diet and exercise plan to help you to lose weight.

Unhealthy diet

Controlling obesity and lowering cholesterol levels helps reduce heart disease risk. The best way to do this is with a healthy diet.

Oily fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and because these may help reduce atheroma build-up, regularly eating oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and herring may also help protect against heart disease.

Fruit and vegetables are not just low in fat, but also contain important vitamins and antioxidants that may also prevent atheroma build-up.

A healthy diet should incorporate:

  • More than five portions of fruit and vegetables every day
  • Low amounts of fatty foods such as meats, cheese, butter and full fat milk
  • Two or three portions of fish every week
  • Low amounts of salt (less than 5 g per day)

Excessive alcohol consumption

Research suggests that regularly drinking a small amount of alcohol (one to two units per day) could reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. However, excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk.

Modifiable or partly-modifiable risk factors

Hypertension

It is important that a doctor checks your blood pressure about every two years, as hypertension rarely causes symptoms but will cause some damage to the heart and circulatory system if undetected.

You can reduce high blood pressure by losing weight, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet. Otherwise your doctor may recommend taking medication.

High cholesterol

As a rule, the higher the total blood cholesterol, the greater the cardiovascular disease risk, especially if you have hypertension or diabetes.

You can reduce LDL cholesterol levels by increasing HDL cholesterol levels with a healthy lifestyle, although sometimes medication may be necessary.

High triglyceride (fat) levels

Having higher levels of triglycerides increases cardiovascular disease risk. But you can reduce triglyceride levels by making some dietary changes such as:

  • Reducing intake of saturated fats from meat and dairy produce
  • Avoiding fatty meats, sausages, bacon and luncheon meat, including salami, devon and chicken
  • Choosing low-fat cuts from organic and grass fed meats and poultry
  • Avoiding commercially baked goods such as cakes, pies and biscuits
  • Avoiding ‘junk foods’ such as takeaway pizzas, chocolate and crisps

Diabetes and kidney diseases affecting kidney function

These conditions can increase the risk of developing heart disease, and taking medications alongside a healthier lifestyle may be necessary to minimize the increased risk.

Conclusion

Although it is impossible to completely remove cardiovascular disease risk, there are some changes that you can make to minimize the risk. Eating healthily, exercising regularly and keeping a check on your blood pressure and cholesterol levels are just a few of the steps you can take.

Last reviewed 24/Feb/2017

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