It’s the muscle that we take most for granted as it works non-stop from the second we’re born to our last moment on earth.
Yet many of us aren’t giving our heart what it needs to function at its best, from eating a healthy diet to enjoying regular activity.
In fact, cardiovascular disease (CVD) — which covers all of the heart and circulation such as coronary heart disease, stroke and blood vessel diseases — is among the leading causes of death and disability in the UK, according to the British Heart Foundation.
More than 160,000 people die each year from CVD.
But many heart problems can be prevented… Here we ask the experts how to form heart-healthy habits at every age.
TEENS: There are plenty of opportunities to keep moving in your teen years from school PE lessons to cycling to friends’ houses
Teens: THE CAVALIER YEARS
There are plenty of opportunities to keep moving in your teen years, from school PE lessons to cycling to friends’ houses.
But as social media and gaming start to dominate teenagers’ lives, physical activity can wane.
Chocolate bars, crisps, chips and pizza are food favourites, and curiosity can also lead to adolescents trying cigarettes, beer and cider.
But teenagers aren’t immune to an unhealthy diet. ‘Fatty streaks start to build up in the arteries in the teens if not before,’ says Dr Sarah Brewer, a medical doctor and registered nutritionist in Guernsey and author of Cut Your Cholesterol.
In fact, a University of Maryland study found that damage to the arteries done early in life may be irreversible and appears to be cumulative.
Foods to help fight cholesterol
Foods to help fight cholesterol
Registered and sports nutritionist Rob Hobson on the heart-healthy foods you need on your shopping list this autumn.
Oats are high in soluble fibre that binds with cholesterol and prevents it from being absorbed. Try swapping your usual cereal for porridge, bircher muesli or add oats to breakfast smoothies.
Nuts, particularly walnuts and almonds, are rich in monounsaturated fats that help lower LDL (bad) and increase HDL (good), and rich in vitamin E, which helps to protect cells from oxidative damage that can contribute to disease.
EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
Rich in monounsaturated fats which lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol, this oil is packed with compounds such as oleocanthal, which has been shown to reduce harmful inflammation in the body. Consider having one tablespoon a day of Ancient Roots olive oil (origins.com), which is packed with heart-protective polyphenols.
WINTER ROOT VEGETABLES
As well as non-HDL cholesterol-lowering fibre, sweet potatoes and butternut squash are filled with potassium which is needed to help with fluid balance in the body, which is linked to blood pressure.
Kale hits the heart health jackpot as it is rich in potassium, magnesium and fibre as well as nitrates that are converted to nitric oxide (NO), which helps dilate blood vessels and improve blood flow.
Salmon, trout, herring, mackerel and sardines are rich in omega-3 fatty acids which can help increase HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, as well as reducing triglycerides in the bloodstream.
Heart help: ‘Make sure you are exercising enough – with school, college and seeing friends it can be easy to put exercise on the backburner,’ says Dr Martin Lowe, consultant cardiologist at The Harley Street Clinic and The Portland Hospital, in London, part of HCA Healthcare UK.
‘Studies have shown that that young people who’ve been born into the digital age do significantly less exercise than other generations did at this stage.
‘Walking to school helps get some daily fitness in, and joining after school clubs such as football and netball are great ways to exercise whilst making new friends and socialising.
‘Developing good eating habits – including eating five different pieces of fruit and vegetables a day and minimising intake of fried food and sugary drinks – as a teenager makes it easier to stick to them in adulthood.’
Twenties: THE WORK HARD, PLAY HARD YEARS
Is there a decade with as much flux as your 20s? Going from university to getting your first jobs, juggling an active social life with long working hours and skimping on sleep.
And with late nights and boozy celebrations, physical health can take a backseat.
‘When young people leave school they become less active as they’re not doing structured sport,’ says Dr Brewer.
‘Then you’ve got the stress of joining the workforce, which can raise blood pressure by causing the arteries to constrict, as well as sleep deprivation, which has negative effects on the cardiovascular system.’
Heart help: A diet rich in vegetables is crucial, but Dr Brewer also suggests taking a daily multivitamin. She also advises drinking in moderation (UK guidelines advise less than 14 units per week).
Vitamin D supplementation is also important. ‘Numerous large scale observational studies and meta-analyses have shown associations of vitamin D with cardiovascular disease (CVD),’ says Dr Eamon Laird, a researcher at Trinity College Dublin.
‘Yet research has shown that younger adults, between the ages of 18 and 39, can have high rates of vitamin D deficiency.
‘This can be due to a number of reasons including lack of sun exposure (working during the day), poor diet (lack of fish or fortified foods or supplements), poorer lifestyle (higher levels of smoking and lack of physical activity outside coupled with higher rates of obesity).’
The HSE recommends 15 micrograms (600iu) a day for healthy teenagers and adults aged 12 to 64 between September and March.
Thirties: THE FAMILY YEARS
With settling down comes young children, childcare and sleepless nights – all while dealing with the stresses of work.
There’s less time to exercise, and the monotony and pressure of putting a family meal on the table each night can mean that fast favourites such as fish fingers, sausages, burgers and pizza can become a little too frequent.
Now is the time to embrace the Mediterranean diet, a more plant-based way of eating filled with wholegrains, vegetables, fruit, olive oil, lean protein, oily fish, herbs and nuts.
THIRTIES: Now is the time to embrace the Mediterranean diet, a more plant-based way of eating filled with wholegrains, vegetables, fruit, olive oil, lean protein, oily fish, herbs and nuts
As well as boosting overall health, it will also up the amount of fibre you eat. The recommended fibre intake in the UK is around 30g a day.
‘Fibre helps you feel full so you eat less, but it also slows absorption of cholesterol via the gut so your body can process it better,’ says Dr Brewer.
Heart help: To increase your fibre intake, make small changes to your diet, such as switching to wholemeal or wholegrain versions of carbohydrate foods, says registered nutritionist and sports nutritionist Rob Hobson, who advises reducing your intake of ultra-processed foods, which can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
‘Add in more vegetables to your diet, including legumes (lentils, peas and beans), which are the richest dietary source of fibre.
‘Easy hacks include adding nuts and seeds to salads, stir fries, yoghurt and porridge; adding vegetables to smoothies; replace half the meat in a Bolognese or lasagne with lentils; include high fibre snacks in your diet such as popcorn, vegetable sticks and wholemeal pitta with hummus.’
Forties: THE MIDDLE-AGED SPREAD YEARS
Beer bellies are an all-too familiar sight among men in their 40s, while women in perimenopause, the transition into menopause, will notice that their waist is getting wider as fluctuating hormones change the way they store fat.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in your blood and cells that the body needs to make hormones, vitamin D, digestive fluids and for our organs to function correctly.
‘The liver makes most of the cholesterol in the body and the rest comes from our food,’ says Rob Hobson.
‘Proteins in the blood carry cholesterol around, and when they join are called lipoproteins. There are two types of lipoproteins, one good for your health and the other bad.
‘High-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is referred to as ‘good’ cholesterol, helps to rid the body of ‘bad’ cholesterol by taking it back to the liver, where it is broken down and removed.
‘If too much non-HDL cholesterol (non-HDL) – ‘bad’ cholesterol – builds up in the body, this can result in fatty deposits inside the walls of blood vessels which can narrow blood vessels and increase your risk of heart attack or stroke.’
Measure your waist: women’s waists should be under 32in, and men’s should be less than 37in. If your middle exceeds these figures, you may be at higher risk of heart disease.
‘This may also be a sign of visceral fat, the fat that is deposited around your organs. It’s active and releases hormones and fatty acids that go straight to your liver and switch on genes that make you produce more cholesterol and affect the way the liver processes glucose,’ says Dr Brewer.
‘If you have a large waist, and you have raised triglycerides, a kind of fat in the blood, this is a worrying combination for heart health.’
Heart help: ‘Look at increasing your intake of plant sterols – a natural compound that can lower cholesterol levels – that are found in broccoli, brussels sprouts, olive oil, pistachios and sesame seeds,’ says Rob Hobson.
‘Plant sterols reduce the amount of cholesterol being transported into the bloodstream, leading to lower levels of non-HDL cholesterol.’
If you struggle to increase the amount of vegetables in your diet, a plant sterol supplement such as Healthspan’s 800mg Plant Sterols once-a-day could help maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
Fifties: THE OVERWHELM YEARS
Everything seems to come to a head in this decade as fiftysomethings juggle ageing and sick parents with tending to teen children, or adjusting to becoming empty-nesters.
Financial worries and career stress can lead to poor sleep, while bad backs, aching knees and tennis elbows start to become a niggling fact of life.
Meanwhile, post-menopausal women are now at an increased risk of heart and circulatory disease without the protective effect of oestrogen.
‘Blood pressure, glucose levels and cholesterol all get worse with age so have a health check,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘Early diagnosis is important.’
Heart help: Men who have gained weight and wake up in the mornings feeling groggy may have sleep apnoea, a potentially dangerous sleep disorder.
‘Sleep apnoea, when your breathing stops and starts as you sleep, increases your heart attack risk. Ask your partner if you snore and if you stop breathing at points,’ says Dr Brewer.
If you’re at risk of CVD, ask your GP if statins are right for you. These are a class of drugs that block a substance in the liver that the body needs for cholesterol production.
‘Statins are an excellent way to reduce cholesterol and are widely recommended by doctors,’ says Dr Lowe. ‘However, you should aim to manage your cholesterol through diet and lifestyle as much as possible.
‘Cardiovascular exercises, such as walking, running, swimming, and cycling all help reduce bad cholesterol, whilst raising good cholesterol.
‘In addition to exercise, diet plays a huge role in the management of cholesterol levels, and it is important to minimise intake of fatty foods that are high in saturated fat.’
Sixties and beyond: THE RETIREMENT YEARS
For many OAPs, the post-work period of their lives can be busier than ever as they look after grandchildren, take up volunteering, tend the garden and walk the dogs.
However, there are also those who find themselves marooned on the sofa with the TV on, feeling increasingly isolated as the years go by.
And loneliness could, literally, be a killer. According to a study published in the US Journal of College of Cardiology earlier this year, social isolation and loneliness increased the risk of hospitalisation or death from heart failure by 15 per cent to 20 per cent.
‘Maintain social contact,’ advises Dr Brewer. ‘Social media can be a great way to keep in touch with friends and family’
Loneliness and social isolation were also more common in men and were also associated with smoking and obesity, which both increase the risk of CVD.
Heart help: ‘Maintain social contact,’ advises Dr Brewer. ‘Social media can be a great way to keep in touch with friends and family.’
If you have chronic pain, she suggests discussing your pain relief with your GP as research has found that regular NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen can increase the heart attack risk in older people.
Dr Lowe adds, ‘It is sensible to purchase a blood pressure monitor to use at home.
‘A healthy blood pressure reading is between 90/60mmHg and 120/80mmHg, and anything above 140/90mmHg is considered high, and you need to share this with your doctor.
‘You can also take your pulse at home, using a timer and counting how many times your heart beats in 15 seconds, then multiplying that number by four.’