How to stay young at heart
Want to boost your heart health right now? Want to win the anti aging fight? Then find a reason to giggle. A good belly laugh helps reduce stress hormones, which are known to damage the protective lining of your blood vessels and can lower the risk of heart disease, according to American research. It’s the least you can do for your heart, given all that it does for you.
Every three minutes, your heart pumps 5.6 litres of blood around your body — the equivalent of running a 19,000km marathon every day. During an average lifetime, your heart will beat about 2.5 million times. Yet often it powers on with less support than it deserves. Every year, heart disease claims the lives or more than 46,000 Australians. Their deaths are not only premature, but also largely preventable.
Anti aging: Heart smart
Most of us don’t think too much about heart health or the aging process until we reach our 40s and beyond and develop measurable heart problems such as elevated blood cholesterol or heart arrhythmias. Yet maximising your heart health throughout life depends on everything you do at every age and stage. Most of us begin to develop fatty buildup in our teens, so by our 20s and 30s we may have numerous plaques in our arteries and some may be growing dangerously large. This will seriously accelerate the aging process.
Do you have a parent or sibling who had a heart attack under 60 (for men) or under 65 (for women)? If the answer is yes, you may also have inherited a family risk of the disease. That doesn’t mean that developing heart problems is a given — it simply means you should be even more careful to minimise heart risk factors.
Heart disease occurs due to excess fat buildup in the arteries where it causes inflammation, which over time turns into a fatty plaque. The bigger the plaque, the higher the chance it will crack and, if it does, cause a heart attack. Then, within an hour, the artery may go from a narrowing of 25 per cent to a complete blockage. Though there are now medications that can help treat contributing factors such as elevated cholesterol, lifestyle is the best prevention. It also reduces your risk of inflammation, which is increasingly being linked to the development of a sick ticker.
Current research is examining whether inflammation may result from microbial infection, which contributes to the clogging of arteries. If so, in the future, heart disease may be treated with antibiotics and vaccines, just as we now treat the bacteria that cause ulcers with antibiotics.
Anti aging and heart health: not just a men’s disease
Heart disease is often regarded as a male condition because it occurs in men at two to three times the rate it affects women. Blame it on the male hormone, testosterone, which appears to be responsible for heart disease striking men younger and with more severity. Research at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital has shown that male hormones called androgens activate 30 genes that kickstart coronary heart disease in men. However, women are not immune, with heart disease also being their number one health risk.
It’s true that if you are pre-menopausal you are at less risk of heart attack than a man is, possibly due to the protection offered by oestrogen. But a 60per cent blockage in a woman leaves less room for the blood to get through her smaller arteries than the same blockage in a man, so women are more likely to die from a heart attack and experience more complications after a heart bypass operation.
That’s why it’s critical not to wait any longer than 15 minutes to seek medical help if you have heart attack symptoms, such as pain in the chest/shoulder/arms/neck/jaw, a cold sweat, nausea or a choking feeling in the throat. If you receive medical help within the first hour, a heart attack is less likely to prove fatal.
Regardless of your gender, at the age of 20, every man and woman should have a cholesterol check (fasting for 12 hours before the blood sample is taken). If it’s fine, continue with five-yearly checks until the age of 40, when your cholesterol should be monitored every two years. Your test should include HDL (“good” cholesterol) and LDL (“bad” cholesterol), as well as triglycerides, which if elevated, are also a significant risk factor for heart attack.
If your levels are high, lifestyle changes can very effectively reduce your risk. However, if there are strong genetic influences, you will need to talk to a doctor about it. Ask your doctor about other blood tests to check for other known heart disease markers (see box).
Clearly, what you do at every age can nurture or neglect your heart health and, in turn, increase or decrease your longevity. Below are the lifestyle issues you need to address to help keep your heart beating with vitality year after year.
Anti aging & cholesterol: cholesterol collateral
Cholesterol is a fatty substance churned out by the liver. Too much cholesterol in your blood builds up in the walls of your arteries, leading to plaques, which may eventually rupture and block the heart. The good guys in the cholesterol camp are HDL (high-density lipoprotein), which act like the body’s clean-up brigade, rounding up excess bad cholesterol on blood vessel walls and carrying it back to the liver, where it is broken down. The bad guys — LDL (low-density lipoprotein) — act like couriers and taxi unhealthy cholesterol throughout the body.
The trigger for the liver to manufacture unhealthy LDL is fat, so make an effort to minimise intake of saturated fats such as in red meats, full-cream dairy products, coconut milk and the skin on chicken. Sugary foods and other refined carbohydrates, such as fructose, also substantially increase the risk of heart disease because their high glycaemic index (GI) elevates blood glucose levels and insulin and causes weight gain. Sugars also encourage processes such as glycation, which contributes to inflammation. If you must have a snack, reach for a few pieces of dark chocolate (70 per cent cocoa), as the stearic acid does not increase cholesterol levels.
Anti aging: think twice about your vice
Unwinding with a glass or two of shiraz or sauvignon blanc at the end of the day has been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack in some studies, possibly due to the high antioxidant content found in both red and white wine. However, this message needs to be balanced by increasing evidence that shows a strong link between daily alcohol consumption and the development of cancer, high blood pressure, stroke and weight gain around the abdomen.
As for smoking, it’s never too late to give up. Cigarettes contain more than 600 chemicals, which damage the cells that line the arteries, causing inflammation. Stop smoking for one year and your risk of developing heart disease is reduced by half, an improvement that continues the longer you abstain.
Anti aging: eat your heart healthy
Your levels of unhealthy LDL cholesterol can be reduced simply by following a healthy heart diet for 6–8 weeks, according to research. As well as cutting back on saturated fats, watch for trans fatty acids (partially hydrogenated vegetables oils), often found in pre-packaged foods such as biscuits, crisps, muffins and margarine. These dangerous fats damage cellular health while raising bad cholesterol, lowering good cholesterol and increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke.
For a tasty, heart-friendly eating approach, follow the Mediterranean diet, which been shown to improve longevity by reducing the risk of heart attack and diseases such as cancer. It’s rich in vegetables, nuts and fish and low in dairy food and red meat. The diet includes plenty of good fats, such as cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil. It also encourages the intake of fish, which is brimming with healthy omega-3 fatty acids; studies show they can help reduce heart arrhythmias, bad cholesterol levels, blood clotting and high blood pressure.
Anti aging: weigh it up
Being overweight increases your lifetime risk of suffering a heart attack. Accumulation of weight around the abdomen is particularly problematic because it inhibits insulin from working properly in your body and drains it directly to organs such as the heart, worsening plaque buildup in the arteries. To check if you’re in a healthy weight range:
Measure your height in metres then multiply by the same number, eg 1.6m x 1.6 = 2.56.
Divide your weight by your height squared, eg 60kg divided by 2.56 = 23.4
This figure will indicate which BMI category you fall into:
- Underweight: less than 18.5
- Healthy weight: 18.5–24.9
- Overweight: 25–29.9
- Obese: 50 or more
Keep in mind that if you exercise a great deal, your BMI may be above the recommended weight range because muscle weighs more than fat. If concerned about your bodyweight, consult a health practitioner.
Anti aging: Fit focus
Exercise increases oxygen delivery to your cells, reducing blood pressure, strengthening your heart and boosting lung capacity. You don’t need to work out until you feel exhausted; instead, try to exercise until you reach a point of “perceived exertion”, suggests Dr Ross Walker, a specialist cardiologist and author of The Cell Factor: Lose Weight Gain Energy and Live Longer By Optimising Your Cell Health (Pan Macmillan, RRP $30).
“This is the feeling you have during exercise a few minutes into a light jog or brisk walk, when you start to break into a slight sweat and feel a bit short of breath,” Walker explains. “Maintain this feeling for around 20–30 minutes four or five times a week and you will be exercising at around 60–70 per cent of your maximum heart rate — this is when you start to burn fat and improve cardiovascular fitness and enjoy the many other health benefits of being on the move.”
Pushed for time? Split up your daily movement into three blocks of 10 minutes (eg skipping, riding a bike, jumping on a mini-tramp). Can’t fake enthusiasm for attending jogging or kickboxing class? Then consider a morning class of tai chi — studies show that cardiovascular function can be improved while enjoying balletic movement sequences such as “wave hands like clouds” and “grasping bird’s tail”. Still not keen? Head out for a sunset walk. Simply walking for 30 minutes most days of the week will halve your risk of heart attack, even if you make no other lifestyle changes.
Anti aging: Under pressure
A hard taskmaster, high blood pressure forces the heart to work harder to pump blood around the body. An estimated 3 million or more Australians aged 25 and over have high blood pressure. If not managed, it can lead to cardiovascular disease (heart disease, stroke and blood vessel disease).
People with hypertension often feel perfectly well, so it’s important to have your blood pressure checked regularly by your doctor. To minimise other blood pressure triggers, cut alcohol intake to two drinks a day or less, exercise regularly, lose excess weight and consume less salt by eating fewer processed foods. In addition, enjoy a cuddle. Cuddles can be as effective as medication in lowering blood pressure, according to US research at the University of North Carolina.
Anti aging & stress: the stress connection
At the Baker International Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Professor Murray Esler and co-workers have found that stress has more of an impact on the heart than on the liver, lungs, kidneys and muscles. The reason? A hormone called noradrenaline, which is secreted by nerve endings and the adrenal glands. This hormone release in the heart affects the electrical activity of the muscle, making arrhythmia (atypical heartbeat rhythms) more likely. The arrhythmia, which can happen due to acute or chronic stress, is potentially fatal. It may explain why sudden death rates from heart attack may increase as much as sevenfold during earthquakes or after events such as bushfires.
The bad news doesn’t stop there. With every adrenalin surge, fats are released into the bloodstream to provide extra energy to the heart, which uses free fatty acids as its principal fuel. So adrenal overload is a fast track to atherosclerosis, whereby cholesterol buildup causes the arteries to narrow.
The stress need not be life-threatening to push you to a dangerous limit. Studies show that workers exposed to seasonal levels of stress (such as accountants at tax time) experience increased cholesterol levels because of the greater pressure they are under. In his lab, Esler has given subjects challenging arithmetic tasks and then recorded quite a marked increase in blood pressure, heart rate and release of noradrenaline from the nerves and the heart.
In short, when you are under pressure, your heart is under pressure. So if anxiety and tension are ongoing problems in your life, take up meditation, go for counselling or make over your lifestyle to ensure you have more downtime. Your heart will thank you and you will boost your likelihood of living a longer, healthier life, free of disease.
Anti aging: hidden heart attack risks
The following surprising lifestyle factors influence your heart health as much as diet and exercise:
- Gum disease: Flossing your teeth could lengthen your life. People with inflamed, sore or bleeding gums are almost twice as likely to suffer from coronary artery disease. This could be because the bacteria involved in gum disease enter the bloodstream from the mouth and attach to fatty plaques in the arteries of the heart. See your dentist six-monthly or yearly to check the health of your gums and brush and floss carefully to remove dental plaque.
- Depression and loneliness: Depression can adversely affect blood pressure, heart rhythm and blood flow, increasing the risk of heart disease. By contrast, having a busy social life is a good investment for your heart. Studies show that people who are lonely, depressed or socially isolated have a higher incidence of coronary heart disease. Quality time with your partner can also strengthen your ticker, so make communication a priority. Studies show that women in happy marriages are less likely to develop risk factors that cause heart disease.
- Diabetes: Ask for a urine test during your yearly check-up or sooner if you have symptoms such as thirst and exhaustion —more than 500,000 Australians have diabetes and don’t know it. Once you have diabetes, your risk of heart disease increases.
- Polycystic ovaries: Women with this condition are at higher risk of coronary heart disease later in life.
- Leg blockages: While taking a routine blood-pressure test, ask your GP for a blood-pressure reading around the ankle. Ninety-five per cent of people experiencing arterial leg blockages also have blockages in the heart.
- Burning the candle: People who sleep five hours a night or less are more prone to heart disease, possibly because of the impact on certain hormones.
- Snoring: People who snore have double the risk of heart attack and stroke, according to research from the Harvard School of Public Health.
- Lack of sunlight: Vitamin D, which we absorb mainly through sun exposure, is pivotal to lessening the buildup of artery-narrowing plaque in the blood vessels. So enjoy a 10-minute al fresco meditation on the breath and benefit both your heart and your mind.
Anti aging: new heart disease markers
If you have a family history of heart disease or follow a healthy lifestyle but are developing some heart issues, consider getting a referral to a university medical centre with a high-risk or preventative cardiology section, to undergo some of the new breed of tests for heart disease.
- Lipoprotein: Lp(a) is a fat particle belonging to the family of “bad” LDL cholesterol and it may raise heart attack risk, even when the usual cholesterol risk factors are not obvious in other tests. Scientists suspect the sugars coating Lp(a) particles make them sticky and more likely to adhere to the artery wall.
- Homocysteine: High homocysteine levels coincide with high heart attack risk and a deficiency of the B vitamins folic acid and, in some cases, B6 and B12. People eating plenty of leafy green vegetables and fruit are likely to be getting enough folic acid. However, about 12 per cent of the population have a higher requirement for folic acid because of a deficient enzyme.
- C-reactive protein: A marker indicating inflammation of blood-vessel walls in the heart is a known contributor to the plaque formation that leads to arterial narrowing and heart attacks.
- Calcium deposits: The theory is that heart attacks may occur due to small tears in the artery wall. When fatty deposits build up within the wall of the artery, calcium salts also become incorporated within the fatty plaques and they can be detected (as small as 3mm) via an ultrafast scanner.
Anti aging: Measuring up
Having an apple shape can predispose you to heart disease. That’s why measuring your waist is just as important as checking your cholesterol and blood pressure. According to the National Heart Foundation, waist measurements linked to increased heart attack risk are 80cm (for women) and 94cm (for men). To measure your tummy:
- Stand with feet slightly apart and arms by your sides.
- Wrap a tape measure around your bare skin at the middle point between the bottom rib and the top of your hipbone.
- Breathe out and take your stomach measurement — the tape measure should be snug but not digging into the skin.
Anti aging: Longevity meal
Researchers from the Netherlands and Melbourne’s Monash University have devised a meal called the “polymeal”, which contains foods that should be eaten daily to help cut cardiovascular disease (heart disease, stroke and blood vessel disease) by 76 per cent. The polymeal consists of:
- 400g of fruit and vegetables.
- 150ml of wine.
- 100g of dark chocolate.
- 2.7g (a clove or two) of garlic
- 68g of almonds
- 114g of fish (four times a week).