25 March, 2020

Health of Australian Men – getting to the heart of it, part three

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We recently wrote about the health of Australian women and how dementia is their number one killer. But how are our Aussie men fairing?

What health risks are they up against?

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics recent survey, the leading cause of death in males is heart disease, also known as ischaemic heart disease. In women it is the second most common cause of death and disease after dementia. Heart disease is twice as high in men as it is in women and may be contributed to men being more likely to engage in risky behaviours (see the risk factors) and die more prematurely.

Heart disease is when the arteries harden and narrow due to plaque (cholesterol and fatty deposits) build-up on the artery walls resulting in reduced blood flow to the heart (atherosclerosis). Inflammation is also key in progressing the plaques and making them fragile and unstable, risking further narrowing. These resulting changes in the arteries may lead to heart attacks and stroke.

Indigenous Australians have heart disease hospitalisation and death rates almost twice the rate of non-Indigenous Australians.

More than four in five (83%) heart disease hospitalisations occurred in those aged 55 years and over.

What are the risk factors?

Around 90% of Australians have at least one risk factor for heart disease. The more risk factors you have, the greater your chance of developing it.

The good news is that for most risk factors, you can do something about them.

Risk factors:

– smoking

– poor diet

– overweight and physical inactivity

– high cholesterol

– high blood pressure

– diabetes

– depression and social isolation

Heart disease has a slow onset. Atherosclerosis usually begins in early adulthood. Often people live for many years with this build-up increasing and have no symptoms. But it can lead to serious complications, such as:

– coronary thrombosis. Sometimes a blood clot forms at a narrowed point in the artery, blocking the flow of blood altogether. This is called coronary thrombosis or coronary occlusion

– angina, chest pain or discomfort

– heart attack

What are the signs and symptoms?

– central chest discomfort or pain which may spread to the neck, shoulder or jaw

– shortness of breath or dyspnoea

– extreme fatigue

– dizziness

– an irregular heartbeat or palpitations

Chest pain is not always present in heart disease. Harvard doctors state that any symptoms aggravated by exertion and improved by rest need to be investigated by your physician, particularly when accompanied by the listed risk factors.

There may also be aches and pains in the body, not just the chest, due to arterial blood flow being blocked. This may be felt in the shoulders, arms, back, jaw, or abdomen. Particularly when pain in these locations occurs with exercise and disappears with rest, the pain could well be a sign of heart disease.

Swollen feet or ankles may also be a sign of heart disease, but could also be associated with various other pathologies.

What about cholesterol?

For decades we have been told all fat is bad. However, healthy fats actually lower the risk of heart attacks.

They also help you absorb some vitamins and minerals, build cell membranes and the sheaths surrounding nerves, as well as being necessary for blood clotting and muscle movement.

Good fats increase the ‘good’ high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which helps mop up the excess ‘bad’ low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol that is prone to adhere to the arterial walls and form plaques.

Eating trans fats, found in margarine and processed meats, increases the amount of harmful LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream and reduces the amount of beneficial HDL cholesterol.

Even small amounts of trans fats can harm health: for every 2% of calories from trans fats consumed daily, the risk of heart disease rises by 23%.

Good fats come mainly from vegetables, nuts, seeds, avocados, and fish, and will increase HDL cholesterol.

Nourish your body inside and out

Two in every three adult Australians aged 18 and over are either sedentary or have low levels of exercise. Being inactive means, you will be twice as likely to suffer heart disease compared to those who get enough exercise.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare recent survey data shows that only 3% of men consumed adequate amounts of fruit and vegetables. Heart disease is directly linked to diet and approximately 70% of heart disease is attributed to insufficient intake of fruit and vegetables specifically.

Lose weight

Unfortunately, a staggering 75% of men are overweight or obese, and 60% have waist circumference measurements over 94cm placing them into the high-risk category.

Being inactive and overweight is almost as risky as smoking. Research shows that being overweight or obese can:

– raise your blood cholesterol levels

– increase your blood pressure

– increase your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Because these are risk factors for heart disease, your weight can have a big impact on your long-term health.

Staying focused and addressing the modifiable risk factors will greatly reduce your risk.

Stay tuned for the next part in this series, we will discuss evidence-based natural medicines to lower your risk of developing heart disease.

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