Body & Fitness

What to expect when getting your heart checked

I've frequently written about the importance of having your heart health checked, but never gone into detail about exactly what that involves. So I asked the Heart Foundation of New Zealand for help explaining what happens. Here's what they told me.

It’s not scary or painful. You won’t have to strip off, be forced to run on a treadmill or be pricked with dozens of needles. Having your heart health checked is mostly a simple matter of sitting down with your GP and working out what your risk of having heart problems is likely to be.

Who should have the health of their heart checked?

Routine checks are advised for women aged 55 and over and men aged 45 and over. But you may need to see your doctor before then if:

  • You’ve had any chest pain.

  • There’s a history of close family members having heart attacks at a young age.

  • You have increased risks such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

Do you need to have blood tests?

Yes – these check your blood sugar (to see if you have diabetes or are pre-diabetic) and your cholesterol levels.

What other tests will the doctor do?

They’ll take your blood pressure – high blood pressure can lead to heart disease – and your pulse to see if it is regular.If you’ve had chest pain, they may do an electrocardiogram (ECG). This monitors your heart’s electrical activity and can show if it has been damaged.

Exercise ECGs – where you walk on a treadmill while hooked up to wires attached to you with sticky dots – are carried out much less frequently and are usually ordered by a cardiologist to see how your heart behaves when it is given an extra workload.

What else will the doctor do?

They’ll ask questions about your family history, your own health history and whether you smoke. They’ll also want to know how much alcohol you drink, what your diet’s like and how much you exercise. They may work out your Body oass Index (BoI) and measure your waist.

“Having a spare tyre can mean you’ve got visceral fat in your abdomen. This fat secretes hormones that can affect cholesterol and cause insulin resistance,” says Gabrielle Gallagher, risk training co-ordinator for the Heart Foundation.

The information will be put into a computer programme with your test results and statistical information, and it will work out your heart disease risk.

What happens next?

Your risk will be mild if it is calculated to be under 10%, while 10 to 15% is moderate and 15 to 20% is high. over 20% means your risk of heart trouble is very high.

“If your risk is over 15%, the doctor will talk to you about medication for your blood pressure and cholesterol,” says Gabrielle. “They’ll also talk to you about your diet and exercise.

“With some people, all it takes is a few minor changes, such as swapping blue top milk for green, walking 20 minutes a day or cutting down on salt, and they’ll find they’ve lowered their risk.

“Your coronary arteries can be 75% blocked before you get symptoms, so it can make a huge difference finding out what your risk is.”

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