Are you at risk of heart disease?
Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, and a major cause of chronic health problems.
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Written by Amber
Updated over a week ago

According to the World Health Organisation, heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, and a major cause of chronic health problems. The good news is that an estimated 80% of cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, are preventable.

What is heart disease?

Heart disease, also known as cardiovascular disease, refers to a group of conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. These conditions can include coronary artery disease, heart attacks, heart failure, and arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). While some risk factors for heart disease, such as age and family history, cannot be changed, many lifestyle factors can be modified to reduce the risk of heart disease.

What are the risk factors for heart disease?

There is no singular cause for heart disease. However, there are risk factors that increase your chance of developing it. The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to develop heart disease.

Lifestyle risk factors

Lifestyle factors are some of the risks we can control when it comes to heart disease. Some of the most common risk factors include:

  • Smoking - If you smoke, you are almost three times more likely to die of heart and blood vessel disease (including heart attack and stroke), compared to people who don’t smoke, You are at least three times more likely to die from sudden cardiac death.

  • Unhealthy diet - A low-saturated fat, high-fibre, high-plant food diet can substantially reduce the risk of developing heart disease.

  • Alcohol - Regularly drinking alcohol above the national recommended limits can cause alcohol-caused hypertension (high blood pressure) as well as increase the risk of stroke and arrhythmia

  • Unhealthy weight - Excess weight can lead to fatty material building up in your arteries (the blood vessels that carry blood to your organs). If the arteries that carry blood to your heart get damaged and clogged, it can lead to a heart attack.

  • Being inactive - A sedentary lifestyle contributes to artery hardening and plaque buildup, raising blood pressure. Spending 30 to 45 minutes a day being active, five or more days a week can help reduce the risk of developing heart disease.

Health conditions that increase risk
Some medical conditions increase your risk of heart disease, but many of them can be managed with medication and healthier lifestyle habits:

  • High blood pressure - You can’t feel high blood pressure, which is why it’s important to get it checked by a health professional regularly. High blood pressure can be controlled by making positive changes to your lifestyle. Your doctor may recommend medications, as well.

  • Diabetes - People with diabetes are up to four times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke. Over time, high blood sugar levels from diabetes can damage blood vessels in the heart and make them more likely to develop fatty deposits. This can be managed with medication, diet and exercise.

  • High Cholesterol - Too much bad cholesterol can be harmful because it sticks to the walls of your arteries and causes a build-up of fatty plaques, creating blockages in your arteries. A low-cholesterol diet may be suggested by your doctor, and in some cases, medication.

  • Mental health - Research shows some mental health conditions may increase your risk of developing heart disease. Depression can increase your risk of developing heart disease just as much as smoking and high blood pressure. See your GP if you think you might be experiencing depression or other mental health conditions like anxiety.

Risk factors you can't control

Unfortunately, some of us are more prone to heart disease for reasons we can't control. These include:

  • Family genetic history

  • Female-specific risk factors (including pregnancy and menopause)

  • Ethnic background

  • Social environment

If you have a close family member (such as a parent or sibling) who has had a heart attack or stroke before the age of 60, you are at increased risk of heart disease.

Being at higher risk for heart disease for factors such as family history means that it is more important to take action on the factors you can control.

Preventing heart disease

There are several ways you can reduce your risk of developing heart disease, such as lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. You can do this by:

  1. Eating a healthy, balanced diet

  2. Being more physically active

  3. Keeping to a healthy weight

  4. Giving up smoking

  5. Reducing your alcohol consumption

  6. Keeping your blood pressure under control

  7. Keeping your diabetes under control

  8. Taking any prescribed medications

  9. Visiting your doctor for a heart risk assessment if you are over 45; or if you are over 30 and Māori, Pasifika, South Asian or Aboriginal Australian.

Heart attacks, strokes and cardiac arrests

Heart disease can result in life-threatening medical emergencies such as heart attacks, cardiac arrests or strokes. If you notice any of these warning signs, call an ambulance immediately.

Heart Attack Symptoms

  • Chest discomfort

    Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the centre of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.

  • Discomfort in other areas of the body

    Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

  • Shortness of breath

    With or without chest discomfort.

  • Other signs

    These may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

    Call an ambulance immediately.

Stroke symptoms

Learn the acronym and spot a stroke F.A.S.T.

  • Face drooping
    Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile.

  • Arm weakness
    Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

  • Speech difficulty
    Is speech slurred, are they unable to speak, or are they hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, like "the sky is blue." Is the sentence repeated correctly?

  • Time to call an ambulance
    If the person shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call an ambulance and get them to the hospital immediately.

Cardiac arrest symptoms

  • Sudden loss of responsiveness
    No response to tapping on shoulders.

  • No normal breathing
    The victim does not take a normal breath when you tilt the head up and check for at least five seconds.

Call an ambulance immediately and look to see if there is a defibrillator nearby, to use while you wait.

If you have any questions or need extra support, we're here to help you anytime in any language. Simply start a chat with us via the home screen of the Sonder app.

Information sourced from: Heart Foundation NZ, AU and US, Better Health, NHS.

Image credit: Towfiqu Barbhuiya at Unsplash

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.

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