Heart disease isn’t a common topic of conversation, but many might be surprised to learn just how big of a health issue it is, especially for women. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the single biggest killer of Australian women. It kills more young women than men[i] and three times more Australian women die of heart disease than breast cancer[ii].
The good news? Many cases of heart disease can be prevented – based on modifiable risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, being inactive, an unhealthy diet and smoking. But, while our social and news feeds are often full of advice around eating well and moving more, little air time is given to decoding what exactly cholesterol is, and how we can achieve optimal levels to better our health.
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HCF, in partnership with the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, tests its members for risk factors related to heart health, and out of close to 10,000 Australians tested in 2017, only 24% were aware of their cholesterol levels and 36% had high cholesterol levels. According to HCF’s Medical Director, Dr Andrew Cottrill, these statistics are a worry, as CVD and diabetes are growing health concerns in Australia.
To help us understand the risk factors and put our heath first, we asked Dr. Cottrill to explain cholesterol in a bit more detail and tell us some simple ways women can maintain a healthy heart:
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that gets carried around the body by lipoproteins in the blood. It’s produced naturally by your liver, but is influenced by several lifestyle factors, including your diet, weight and physical activity. Cholesterol is essential to the production of healthy cells in the body, but maintaining the right levels is key – too much of it in your blood is a problem.
There are two different types of cholesterol:
– Good Cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein or HDL), which helps to keep cholesterol from building up in the arteries. It picks up excess cholesterol and takes it back to the liver. Having high HDL is linked to lower risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
– Bad Cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein or LDL), which transports cholesterol particles throughout your body and is the main source of cholesterol build-up and blockage in the arteries. Having low HDL – or high cholesterol levels – is linked to higher risk of heart attack. There are no symptoms of high cholesterol, so the only way to detect it is through a blood test.
To achieve or help maintain healthy cholesterol levels and a healthy heart, it’s best to:
Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet
Containing vegetables, whole-grains and some fruit. Limit your consumption of animal fats and instead choose lean meats and poultry and healthy fats, like avocado and salmon, to increase HDL (good cholesterol) levels. Avoid trans fats found in fried foods and baked goods and reduce your salt intake.
A recent review of research on the relationship between exercise and cholesterol found that about 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week helped to maintain or reduce bad cholesterol (LDL) and increase good cholesterol (HDL) in the blood. The study defined physical activity as aerobic exercise such as walking or swimming or resistance training such as weight training, or both.[iii]
Curb your alcohol intake
No more than one or two standard alcoholic drinks per day is recommended. A standard drink in Australia is any drink containing 10 grams of alcohol, like a can of mid-strength beer, a small glass of wine or a nip of spirits.[iv]
Achieve and maintain a healthy weight
This is one of the best things you can do for your overall health and wellbeing. As well as helping to reduce blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels, having a healthy body weight can also reduce your risk of developing other lifestyle-related diseases, like diabetes. A BMI between 18.5 and 25 is considered healthy.[v]
Smoking can increase the risk of heart disease, especially for those with high cholesterol, by causing blood vessels to become stiffer – making it harder for them to expand and contract as needed – and arteries to narrow and clog, which leads to a reduced supply of blood and oxygen to your heart. Research shows though, that just one year after quitting smoking, your risk of a heart attack or stroke is reduced by half and in 5 to 15 years, your risk of stroke and coronary heart disease returns to that of someone who has never smoked. [vi]
Know your family history
While you can do something about most of the risk factors for heart disease, there are some you can’t control, such as your age and family history. As you get older, your risk of heart disease increases. If someone in your family has had a heart attack, you should speak to your doctor about your risk.[vii]
For more information about cholesterol and cardiovascular disease, or to get checked for key risk factors contact your GP.
[i] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Cardiovascular health compendium, December 2017 https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/heart-stroke-vascular-disease/cardiovascular-health-compendium/contents/how-many-australians-have-cardiovascular-disease
[iii] Differential Effects of Aerobic Exercise, Resistance Training and Combined Exercise Modalities on Cholesterol and the Lipid Profile: Review, Synthesis and Recommendations, Mann, S., Beedie, C. & Jimenez, A. Sports Med (2014) https://rd.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs40279-013-0110-5
[iv] Heart Foundation, Drinking alcohol https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/healthy-eating/food-and-nutrition/drinks/drinking-alcohol
[v] Heart Foundation, Healthy weight https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/your-heart/know-your-risks/healthy-weight
[vi] Heart Foundation, Smoking and your heart https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/your-heart/know-your-risks/smoking-and-your-heart
[vii] Heart Foundation, Heart attack risk factors https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/your-heart/know-your-risks/heart-attack-risk-factors