Body & Fitness

What you need to know about heart disease

From changing your eating habits to making lifestyle changes, there are steps that every woman can make to prevent heart disease.

Taking the lives of more than 3000 women a year, heart disease is now considered the largest killer of women in New Zealand.

Many women aren’t aware of this and therefore may not know which symptoms can be precursors of heart disease.

However, with the growing number of deaths it’s important for us to know and understand how we can prevent being at risk, including changing your eating habits and lifestyle.

We sat down with Clinical Exercise Physiologist Eleanor Nattrass, Clinic Manager at The ExerScience Clinic to discuss some of the main questions surrounding heart disease, its treatment and prevention.

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is a term used to describe any disorder relating to the heart and its surrounding bloods vessels.

Heart disease currently affects approximately 172,000 New Zealanders and accounts for 33 per cent of deaths within New Zealand annually.

What are the most common heart conditions?

According to the Ministry of Health, the most common heart disease (accounting for over half of all heart disease related deaths) is Coronary Artery Disease (CAD).

CAD is a build-up of plaque which narrows the artery and restricts blood flow to the heart muscle which can result in a heart attack occurring.

Why is heart disease the biggest killer of women in New Zealand?

Heart disease is the biggest killer of women in New Zealand as women often pass off the symptoms as stress or anxiety, rather than being heart related.

Additionally, women are less likely to be referred to cardiac rehab post heart attack although there are benefits to both genders, including increased ability to return to normal activities and reduced risk of early death.

What are the signs/symptoms of having heart disease?

For CAD and heart attack, some of the most common symptoms are angina (discomfort in the chest, jaw, arm), breathlessness, dizziness and nausea.

What is the cause of heart disease?

There are numerous risk factors. Some are un-modifiable, like age, ethnicity and family history. However, modifiable factors include smoking, being overweight, physical inactivity, and high blood pressure or cholesterol.

There is also growing evidence to suggest people living with high stress levels or depression, are at greater risk.

Who is most at risk of getting heart disease?

Older adults, those who are inactive, people with a family history of heart disease and those with multiple modifiable risk-factors like smoking and high blood pressure.

How is heart disease diagnosed?

There are numerous tests available that look at arterial blood flow, structure and function of the heart and the heart’s electrical activity.

Heart disease is diagnosed by a medical professional, such as a cardiologist.

Is heart disease treatable?

Yes, most, if not all heart diseases are treatable.

Treatments have advanced and improved immensely over the years and there is rehabilitation programs designed to significantly reduce the risks of patients relapsing and help with both physical and mental recovery.

What steps can you take to prevent or lessen the risk of getting heart disease?

Firstly, assess the risk factors that are applicable to you. Then, begin efforts to change the modifiable factors.

Ensuring you are exercising (even a small amount) daily and maintaining a healthy, balanced diet can drastically reduce the risks associated with heart disease.

What age are you likely to get heart disease?

The risk of heart disease rises significantly for men after the age of 45 and after the age of 55 for women.

However, some heart diseases are something someone is born with.

How does heart disease affect a person physically?

This varies greatly depending on the type and severity of heart disease a person has.

It may affect a person’s ability to perform exercise, or even daily activities and some people may experience other physical symptoms like fatigue or even nausea.

How does heart disease affect a person mentally/emotionally?

Living with heart disease can lead to heightened feelings of fear, anxiety, depression and stress.

People often report that their mental health limits progress with their physical health and therefore their recovery.

They may have experienced chest pain the last time they exerted themselves, or had a heart attack, so the fear of this happening again is very real.

Is heart disease hereditary?

Yes some forms of heart disease can run in families. There is a heightened risk if your immediate family have had heart disease before the age of 55 (males) and 65 (females).

What are the risks of heart disease?

If heart disease is not well managed the risk of having a serious event like a heart attack, stroke or cardiac arrest is increased.

Events like these can lead to a loss of function, independence and quality of life, and in the worst case can result in death.

If you have a heart disease are there any limitations to what activities you are able to do?

Some people will not experience any limitations following their heart disease.

Seeing a Clinical Exercise Physiologist for a monitored exercise assessment is the best way to determine any limitations to exercise or everyday activities.

Where can you get more information or supports if you or someone you know has heart disease?

The Heart Foundation website has a lot of useful information ( but a Medical Professional should always be consulted for the diagnosis and management of heart disease.

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