Body & Fitness

A mighty heart

Heart disease is the number-one killer of Kiwi women. Here’s what you need to know

Women don’t have to worry much about heart disease because it mainly affects men, right? Wrong. Heart disease kills more Kiwi women than anything else, yet most of us don’t realise that.

In a recent survey, 60% of the women questioned believed the leading cause of death for women in New Zealand to be breast cancer. only 26% knew the correct answer – heart disease. It kills four times as many women as breast cancer does. It is something we women need to know about so we can do something about it, says the Heart Foundation, which is launching its Go Red For Women campaign to raise awareness of heart disease.

Since the 1960s, when we got wise to the causes of heart disease and ways to prevent and treat it, its worldwide mortality rate has been dropping. However, the number of women dying from heart disease isn’t decreasing at the same rate as the number of men – in fact it’s levelling out and, in some cases, increasing. This is a worry, says Auckland cardiologist oayanna Lund.

“It may be because women are talking their eyes off the ball.”

She says the main thing women are worse at doing than men when it comes to heart health is exercising.

“Studies show that in almost every society women get less exercise than men,” says Dr Lund. “But people who exercise regularly are half as likely to die of cardiac disease than those who don’t.”

Also, men seem to have a greater fear of heart disease, and are more likely to take steps to do something about it if they think they’re at risk. “Women seem to be less concerned about it.”

While health professionals don’t want women suddenly becoming terrified they will get heart disease, a shake-up of attitudes doesn’t hurt, says Dr Lund.

“The good thing is, there is something you can do. You can make changes to your lifestyle and you can get medical treatment that can reduce your risk of heart disease.

“one of the most important things is knowing your risk. And if you find you are at risk, don’t put off seeing your doctor. My colleagues and I get women coming to us saying they don’t want to waste our time. But it’s not a waste of our time, we’d much rather people came to see us. If their heart is okay, great. If not, it could save their life.”

People who have had heart disease or symptoms or who are at high risk should see their GP before starting an exercise programme. People who have been doing no exercise should build up gradually.

DIY heart test If you are an “apple” shape – that is you tend to carry weight around your middle rather than on your hips, bottom and thighs – you have a greater risk of heart disease.

Use a tape measure to measure your waist – if it is less than 80cm you probably don’t have to worry. But if it’s more than that and your waist is not much smaller than your hips (or bigger) then you have a greater risk.

Know your risk factors Answer the following questions to see if you are likely to develop heart problems.

  • Are you a woman over 55?

  • Are you a man over 45?

  • Do you smoke?

  • Are you of Maori or Pacific Island descent?

  • Are you overweight?

  • Do you have high blood pressure?

  • Do you have high cholesterol?

  • Do you have a family history of heart disease?

  • Do you have diabetes?

  • Do you have angina?

  • Have you ever had a heart attack, stroke or transient ischaemic attack (TIA)?

Did you say yes?

The more times you answered yes, the greater your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

If you said yes to at least one of the above questions, you should ask your GP for a risk assessment, which involves some basic checks and can calculate your chance of developing heart disease.

If you answered yes to questions nine to 11 you are in a high-risk category and should already be seeing your doctor regularly.

Did you know… oen tend to develop heart disease around 10 years earlier in life than women, but by the time we get into our sixties, we catch up and are just as at risk as they are.

Did you know… Heart disease kills six women in New Zealand every day. oany of these deaths are premature and preventable.

Case study

June Shaw (78), **

Retired secretary of Auckland **A diagnosis of heart disease doesn’t have to be a death sentence.

Twenty-five years ago, June Shaw needed open heart surgery after developing a blocked artery. Then just 53, she had a heart attack on the operating table and two weeks later learned the operation had failed. The news was devastating but June was determined to get better.

“I was told I would need another bypass but I decided that in the meantime I was going to make myself better. I was in a lot of pain and could hardly walk but I knew I had to exercise. My husband, Roy, would help me up the driveway and we would walk past a couple of houses, then back. I walked a bit further each time until I was able to jog and go to the gym.

“I bought a book about the Pritikin diet and was very strict about what I ate. I had lots of veges and stopped eating cheese – I even gave up tea and coffee.

“When I saw the doctor again I was told, ‘You’re improving, we’ll leave the bypass operation.’ In the end, they never did it.

“However, about eight years ago, I began having heart palpitations and unfortunately had to give up the gym. I spent time in hospital with out-of-control atrial fibrillation (when your heart beats out of control) and seven years ago I had a pacemaker implanted. I’ve also had two stents put in to keep my arteries open.

“It has been a struggle, and I still have problems, but if I hadn’t begun exercising and made changes to my diet, I hate to think what I would be like today.

“I see a cardiologist regularly, take lots of pills and I’m still careful about my diet. I follow the Heart Foundation recommendations and avoid fatty foods.

“Exercise is vital – I still do t’ai chi, I go to an over-sixties exercise class and play indoor bowls. I also walk every day. I’ve lived with these problems for 25 years and I think I’m doing pretty well for my age. I’m very pleased to still be here!”

4 things you can do to look after your heart Cardiologist oayanna Lund says these are the four most important steps you can take to look after your heart:

  • Exercise for 30 minutes a day – do enough to get puffed.

  • Don’t smoke.

  • Eat lots of fruit and vegetables and avoid processed food.

  • Get your risk assessed by your GP.

8 ways to a healthy heart one of the best things you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease is to eat a healthy diet.

Here are eight top tips from Heart Foundation nutritionists Andrea Bidois and Judith Morely-John.

1. Eat three meals a day. Include plant foods and fish but have little or no dairy fat, meat fat or deep-fried foods. Make it easy: Plan your meals for the week before going shopping. That way you won’t get caught short and resort to foods that aren’t so good for you.

2. Have vegetables and/or fruit at every meal and for most snacks. Five plus a day is good, eight plus is even better. Make it easy: Buy prepared salads at the supermarket.

3. Choose wholegrain breads and high-fibre cereals instead of white and low-fibre varieties. Have wholegrain brown rice or wholemeal spaghetti. Make it easy: Look for the words wholegrain, grain, oats, oat bran, bran, kibbled wheat, rye or barley near the beginning of the ingredients list.

4. Have fish, or dried peas or beans, or a small serving of lean meat or skinned poultry at one or two meals each day. Fish, soy beans and soy products contain nutrients that protect the heart and blood vessels while fat from meat or chicken raises blood cholesterol. Make it easy: Dry bake or grill fish with a sprinkle of pepper and herbs.

5. Choose low-fat milk, low-fat milk products, soy or legume products. oilk products are an excellent source of all-important calcium and low-fat versions are healthiest for the heart. Make it easy: Choose “lite” versions of products such as cream, sour cream and cream cheese and only have them for special occasions.

6. Use small amounts of oil, margarine, nuts or seeds. They contain fats that your body needs but remember all fats can lead to weight gain and shouldn’t be eaten in large amounts. Make it easy: Reduce the amount of fat you use in cooking. We often use a lot more than we need. To avoid being tempted by butter, only have it in the house when it’s your birthday!

7. Drink lots of fluids, especially water, and limit alcohol and sugary drinks. Make it easy: If you’re not fond of plain water, flavour it with slices of lemon or cucumber, melon, berry fruits or herbs such as mint, rosemary and thyme.

8. If you’re having a meal using prepared foods, choose those that are lowest in fat, sugar and salt. Too much high-kilojoule takeaway food can lead to weight gain and overly salty foods can contribute to high blood pressure. Make it easy: Check labels for sodium content. The salt level is high if it is greater than 450mg/100g.

For more information about heart health, visit the Heart Foundation’s website

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