How to prevent & fight growing Heart Disease in Australia

Deaths from heart disease have risen for the first time since the GFC took its toll on our stress levels in 2008. But heart disease is preventable and treatable, and we can reverse the trend.

Heart Disease mortality rate increasing

Data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) this month shows that for the first time since 2008, the mortality rate for Australians with heart disease has worsened.

But while it’s undeniable that the GFC was a stressful enough time to cause an increase in fatal heart attacks, experts say the cause for 2014’s rise is largely lifestyle factors that we can change.

The report also showed that while more people are surviving their first heart attack, more Australians than ever before are dying from the ongoing issues or health deterioration associated with that attack. National Heart Foundation CEO, Professor Garry Jennings AO says this data shows that the public health message of taking care of our heart health is largely falling on deaf ears.

The ABS data shows that in 2014, 20,173 Australians passed away because of Ischaemic heart disease. This is an increase of 2% from 2013, when Ischaemic heart disease took the lives of 19,769 Australians.

Heart disease was also a related or associated cause of death for another 16,000 Australians on top of that.

Heart disease has been the number one biggest killer of Australians for over a decade now. But the data shows that our rate per population has been fairly stable since the last spike in 2008 – so what’s gone wrong, and how can we reverse this new rising trend?

Should we be doing more to fight heart disease?

National Heart Foundation CEO, Professor Garry Jennings AO says such ill tidings aren’t surprising when you consider the average Australian lifestyle has changed drastically in the past few decades.

“As a country we are plagued by an obesity epidemic, undertaking little or no physical activity and still smoking and drinking at alarming rates,” said Professor Jennings.

“No wonder heart disease is responsible for 1 in 4 deaths in Australia.”

Even taking into account unavoidable factors such as an ageing population, experts say Australia’s rate of heart disease is too high. Professor Jennings says the answer is that both the Australian community and the government need to be reminded that “complacency or failure to act when it comes to their heart health” could be fatal.

The Heart Foundation maintains that prevention is the best cure for heart disease, also known as cardiovascular disease (CVD). And for those who have already had a heart attack, cardiac rehabilitation and making your lifestyle healthy are both vitally important.

What you can do to prevent heart disease

There are some risk factors for heart disease that you cannot prevent, such as (World Heart Federation):

  • Age: The risk of heart disease increases as the heart ages. Find out whether you should be insured for Heart Disease.
  • Hormones: Males and post-menopausal women are at a far greater risk of heart disease.
  • Congenital (inherited) heart defects: This is the biggest killer of Aussie kids under the age of one (HeartKids Australia).
  • Acquired heart defects: A higher number of indigenous children acquire heart disease at a young age, usually because of contracting rheumatic fever after an untreated strep infection.

However, there are definitely things you can do to help prevent heart disease.

We all know we need to exercise regularly and eat right, but how do you integrate that into your daily life? Here are the steps recommended by the experts, and some practical ways to implement them.

6 Exercise tips to prevent Heart Disease

1. Activity trackers

I recently got a Fitbit and I cannot recommend the concept of using a 24/7 activity tracker more highly. I’m a quietly competitive person and I find myself highly motivated to constantly try to reach steps or active minutes than I did the day before.

It doesn’t matter what your starting level is – every extra step you take towards fitness is a step away from heart disease. After all, I started out with an average daily record of just 5,000 steps and I now regularly exceed the recommended 10,000.

Other people may not like activity trackers, but they like setting a goal, like “Run the Bridge to Brisbane this year”. Once they’ve set their goal and registered for the running event, they have to get moving and train in order to reach that goal. Just like activity trackers, setting goals provides motivation, accountability, and a way to track how you’re doing.

How could you possibly get that many steps in a work day without going to the gym, you ask? Let’s get a bit more in-depth…

2. Ditch the car

I don’t mean you should literally sell your car. But taking public transport automatically forces you to walk at least a few hundred metres each morning and evening, adding up the metres from your to the bus stop/train station/ferry jetty and then from the stop you get off at to your office door.

When I think of the hours of my life I’ve spent sitting angrily in stop-start commuter traffic, and compare that to reading a book or watching the scenery fly by from the train, I have no regrets over making the switch. I’d rather be out in the fresh air than smelling the fumes of the car in front of me any day.

3. Take the stairs

I really enjoy it every morning when I walk leisurely up the stairs at the train station and get to the gate ahead of all the people who chose the escalator. Lifts and elevators don’t save you any time, and they’re slowly killing you.

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4. Morning walk or run

I hate the gym. I find all the equipment and muscly people intimidating, especially in the early morning hours when I don’t feel human. But walking involves no equipment or body builders, and you don’t even need to have a dog in order to go for a morning walk.

Set your wake-up alarm just half an hour earlier, and don’t hit snooze when it goes off. Creating the habit is half the battle, but setting a permanent alarm makes it more likely you’ll actually get moving on more mornings.

As if walking wasn’t awesome enough on its own, morning walks have other amazing benefits. Seeing sunlight in the morning resets your body clock so you can sleep more soundly during the night hours. The rhythmic movement of walking upon waking up helps your brain stay calm and focussed throughout the day, preventing depression and anxiety.

If you’re into jogging or running, your cardiac fitness will only benefit most if you make sure your technique is right. Are you running like the Romans did? Basically, this just means you run for a while and then walk or jog for a while.

5. Lunch break walk

I bring my own lunch every day because I live on a budget, but I still go out for a 15 minute walk during my lunch break. It’s a great way to refresh your thinking so you can be more productive in the second half of your work day. Studies of the problem-solving and creative processes have shown that taking a break every now and then is not just nice – it’s essential if you want to solve problems or come up with new ideas.

6. TV exercise equiptment

There are a bunch of easy ways to do simple, lightweight exercise while watching TV or reading a book in the evening. At home I have a Deskerciser, which is a baby exercise bike. It fits under your desk if you have a high enough desk, but I just sit it in front of me at the couch and cycle while I watch old Friends reruns.

Another good option is the Nintendo Wii Fit. You can quickly get your steps up for the day using its Free Step exercise, which counts your steps on and off the Wii board on the gamepad while you’re watching something you like on the TV. It’s so sneaky you won’t even notice you’re exercising!

Eating healthy to prevent Heart Disease

I could talk for hours about the foods you shouldn’t eat if you want a healthy heart, but let’s focus on the foods that are good for keeping your heart health at the max. Happy heart foods include (Better Health Victoria):

Food Why does it help prevent heart disease?
Oily fish (tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines)
  • Contains omega-3 fatty acids (good for heart and brain!)
  • Improves blood vessel elasticity
  • Thins blood
  • Decreases triglycerides
  • Increases healthy cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol)
Vegetable oils (corn oil, soy oil, safflower oil)
  • Contains omega-6 fatty acids
Canola oil and olive oil
  • Contains omega-3 fatty acids
Fruit and vegetables
  • Contains antioxidants
  • Contains folate to lower blood levels of amino acid homocysteine
  • Contains fibre
Wholegrain bread and wholegrain cereals
  • Contains fibre
  • Low glycaemic index to keep blood sugar at safe levels
Soy and legumes
  • Soy protein lowers bad DL cholesterol levels
Tea
  • Contains antioxidants to prevent build-up of fat deposits in arteries, increase blood flow, & increase blood vessel dilation
Red wine (IN MODERATION, no more than 1 standard drink per day for women and 2 standard drinks per day for men)
  • Contains antioxidants (as above)
  • Increases good HDL cholesterol
  • (Moderate use only. High intake will increase blood pressure and triglycerides fat, increasing risk of heart disease.)
Spinach and Avocado
  • Contains Vitamin E
Garlic
  • Contains allicin to lower blood cholesterol
Milk, Yoghurt (reduced-fat), Margarine Spreads
  • Contains phytosterols and stanols to lower bad LDL cholesterol

Tip: Healthy dinner choices

Make a list of your favourite recipes from the online cookbook on the Diabetes Australia website or the Heart Foundation Australia website. Bonus – you’re not just preventing heart disease, you’re also preventing Type 2 Diabetes.

Vaccinations

Make sure that you and your family have received absolutely all of the vaccinations Aussie kids need to protect their hearts. Some vaccinations are specifically recommended for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in areas where there is a higher risk of particular diseases such as influenza and Hep A.

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