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The Heart Foundation’s Heart Week 2019 has a focus on… yep, you guessed it, heart health! And what we can do to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). If you’re wondering why heart health is important enough to have its own dedicated week of the year, it’s because currently, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide.

That’s right, even though we humans are at the top of the food chain with living standards improving on the daily and our life expectancy rising, cardiovascular disease is our deadliest killer. In Australia, cardiovascular disease takes 120 lives every day—that’s 1 Australian every 12 minutes.

Cardiovascular Disease

The word “heart disease” is often used interchangeably with “cardiovascular disease”. Heart disease refers to conditions affecting just the heart, whereas, CVD includes heart and circulatory (blood vessel) conditions. Hence, all heart diseases are CVD but not all CVD is heart disease. Now that’s out of the way, some examples of CVD include high blood pressure, coronary artery disease (heart attacks, heart muscle disease), peripheral artery disease, stroke, heart failure and congenital heart disease (present at birth).

 

Risk factors for Cardiovascular Disease

Before you get full blown CVD, there are risk factors which increase the chances of a person getting CVD. Cardiovascular Disease results from a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors including smoking, a sedentary lifestyle (lack of exercise or inactivity), a bad diet (high in fat and carbohydrates), diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chronic stress and depression.

 

Symptoms

It’s important to note here that the symptoms of CVD will be different depending on which cardiovascular disease the person has. A person may experience one or many of these symptoms. This can range from shortness of breath, dizziness and nausea to pain in the chest, racing heartbeat, swelling in the legs, skin rashes and even fainting. A summary of the symptoms of various CVD can be found As 1 in 5 Australians between the age of 34-75 will experience a heart attack or stroke in the next 5 years—let’s look at heart attack symptoms in men and women.

In Australia, 50 women have a heart attack every day and women are 3 times more likely to die of CVD than breast cancer … Only 1 in 3 women will experience ‘typical’ heart attack symptoms making heart attacks in women much deadlier.

Men vs women’s heart attack symptoms

We’ve all seen those movie scenes where a man gets some bad news or is doing some work at the office late at night and all alone, he suddenly gasps, grabs his chest and falls over dramatically from a heart attack. However, in reality, this could just as easily been a woman and the scene much less dramatic!

Unfortunately, many people are not aware of the statistics and symptoms when it comes to heart attacks in women as CVD is perceived as a common illness in older men. In Australia, 50 women have a heart attack every day and women are 3 times more likely to die of CVD than breast cancer.

The symptoms of a heart attack are different in men and women. Men tend to have typical symptoms associated with a heart attack: chest discomfort (even without exertion), nausea, indigestion, heartburn, radiating pain in the jaw and left arm, dizziness, light-headedness, shortness of breath and sweating before a heart attack.

While women, experience an uncomfortable pressure or squeezing in the chest which lasts a few minutes, or goes away and comes back, pain or discomfort in one or both arms, dull ache or discomfort between shoulder blades/jaw/neck/abdomen, sweating, nausea, unusual fatigue and weakness, shortness of breath and dizziness. Only 1 in 3 women will experience ‘typical’ heart attack symptoms making heart attacks in women much deadlier.

A 2016 study found that within a year of their first heart attack, women have lower survival rates than men and 47% of the women will die in 5 years, develop heart failure or suffer from a stroke compared with only 36% of the men.

 

Heart attack in young adults

Although uncommon, heart attacks can and do happen in adults under 30 years of age. The cause of sudden cardiac death in young people vary but often, it’s due to a heart abnormality. And for many reasons, usually have no symptoms until too late.

Angela Parker a 22-year-old marathon runner, experienced symptoms of a heart attack, while on a trip through Africa. Because she was so young, doctors dismissed the symptoms…until it happened again. This time at age 24, Angela suffered her SECOND heart attack and required emergency heart surgery. She recovered and was later diagnosed with Kawasaki’s Disease (which involves inflammation of the blood vessels).

Joseph Collins a teenage basketball player, who at 14 years old, collapsed while running sprints with his teammates. His coaches thought he had fallen down because he hurt his leg so they stood there and did nothing. Until they realised Joseph wasn’t moving and performed CPR which revived him. Joseph survived and turns out had an inherited condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), where the walls of the heart thicken. This thickened muscular wall disrupts the heart’s electrical system, causing fast or irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias) which can lead to inadequate supply of oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the heart and body and even sudden death. HCM is not usually fatal however, accounts for the most common cause of heart-related sudden death in young people, especially young athletes.

 

Heart Health Check

Sometimes people are unaware they have risk factors of heart disease early enough and other times, there are no symptoms. You are eligible for a heart health check as part of a normal check-up with your local GP or health practitioner if you are aged 45 and above (30 years and above for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples) and not known to have CVD. This can be claimed once a year by each patient, once per patient in a 12-month period. Generally, your doctor will ask about your family history (whether your parents, grandparents etc had the condition/disease), lifestyle (e.g. diet, exercise, smoking habits), take blood pressure and blood tests.

 

What you can do now to look after your heart

If you think heart disease is something to worry about when you’re 50, you’d be wrong. There are steps you can take and things you can start doing now to keep a healthy lifestyle and reduce the risks of heart disease in the future.

  • Quit smoking (better yet, don’t start—ever)
  • Regular exercise (join the gym, your health is an investment)
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat a healthy and well-balanced diet including fish, eggs, meat, grains, vegetables, fruits. And avoid processed foods, added sugars, excessive salt, saturated fats.

Balance is key. I’m not saying you can’t eat ice cream, just don’t eat the whole tub (note to self). While you don’t have control over inherited cardiovascular conditions (like Kawasaki disease and HCM), you do have control over the lifestyle choices you make. So, make good ones.

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