Food & Nutrition

Risk factors for an unhealthy heart

While some heart problems may be hereditary, others may be the result of a number of risk factors, many of which are preventable.
Published 31 May 2018

What is heart disease?

Heart (or cardiovascular) disease refers to all diseases of the heart and blood vessels, including stroke, arrhythmia and heart failure.

Heart disease remains a major health problem throughout Australia. On average, one in five Australian adults have heart disease and one Australian dies as a result of heart disease every 12 minutes.

Whilst these statistics may be shocking, it’s important to remember that you can work to actively decrease the risk of heart disease by adopting a healthier lifestyle and following the below professional health advice:

  • Smoking

It’s commonly known to affect the lungs, however smoking also damages the blood vessels that supply your heart.

WW advice: Speak to your GP about any support you may need to quit.

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)

If you have persistent high blood pressure it can put a strain on your arteries, which makes them become thicker and narrower, raising blood pressure even more. Eventually this can lead to heart failure, heart attack or stroke. A high salt intake, alcohol consumption above recommended guidelines, excess weight and inactivity may all lead to high blood pressure.

WW advice: If you have high blood pressure, talk to your health-care professional about treatment options and actively work to achieve a healthy weight.

  • Type 2 diabetes

This disease can lead to multiple medical problems, including damage to blood vessels in the eyes, kidneys and heart.

WW advice: If you have existing type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes, maintain regular check-ups with your healthcare team to manage and monitor your condition.

  • High blood fats (lipids)

Blood contains fatty substances and if these are too high it can cause a build-up of sticky deposits (plaque) in the small arteries around your heart. Over time this can cause complete blockages and lead to a heart attack. Pieces of plaque may also break off and travel through the blood vessels to the brain, causing a type of stroke. There are three main blood fats: LDL cholesterol (known as the ‘bad’ one as it’s the main source of heart plaque), HDL cholesterol (the ‘good’ one because it helps prevent plaque build-up) and triglycerides (which can also contribute to artery hardening).

WW advice: Ask your GP for regular blood lipid tests. Healthy eating can help, however, some people have a genetic condition that requires medication.

  • Excess weight

Being overweight, especially around the middle, can have a big impact on a number of cardiovascular disease risk factors, including raising LDL and decreasing HDL cholesterol levels, increasing blood pressure and amplifying your risk of type 2 diabetes. Research is also uncovering additional risks, particularly from abdominal obesity, including insulin resistance and increased inflammation.

WW advice: Achieving a healthy weight – or even a 5-10 per cent weight loss – can decrease your risk of heart disease.

  • Inactivity

Like any muscle, your heart will stay stronger if you exercise it. Being active has a host of physical and mental benefits and can also help you achieve a healthy weight while reducing high blood pressure and lipid levels.

WW advice: As well as regular planned physical activity, it’s important to work on increasing incidental activity, such as taking the stairs instead of the lift at work and decreasing the amount of time sitting. If you are resuming activity after being sedentary or have existing heart disease, speak with your health-care professional first.

  • Depression/isolation

Older people living alone have long been identified as being at greater risk of heart disease. However, any form of depression or social isolation can increase the risk because it makes you less motivated to look after your health.

WW advice: Actively work on your mental wellbeing as part of a healthy lifestyle and seek expert help in difficult times.

  • Genetic makeup

There are some risks that you can’t control, such as your age (the older you get the more time there is for your arteries to get clogged), ethnic background (Indigenous Australians and New Zealanders are identified as high-risk groups) and family history (if a close relative has had a heart attack you may be more at risk). Many people also believe men are more at risk than women. However, while the hormone oestrogen offers some protection up until menopause, after that the risk of cardiovascular disease for women can be equal to men.

WW advice: Be aware of your individual risk factors and limit your exposure to preventable risks.

How can I tell if I am overweight?

Simply jumping on the scales is not always the best way to assess your weight as it doesn’t take into account your height, shape or individual circumstances. Health professionals often use two measures in tandem:

1. Body Mass Index (BMI) – a calculation based on your weight and height to determine where you fall in the healthy weight range. BMI may not be as accurate for people who have a high percentage of muscle, such as bodybuilders. Try the BMI calculator.

2. Waist circumference – a check to see if you are carrying excess weight around your middle (‘apple’ body shapes have a higher risk of heart disease than ‘pear’ body shapes with excess weight around your hips). Use a tape measure to find your waist size (without clothing) and aim for 94cm or under for men and 80cm or under for women.

Note: If you have a health issue, such as heart disease or diabetes, always consult a health professional before attempting significant weight loss.