The number of candles on your birthday cake isn’t the best indicator of where your body is at, health-wise, and new findings have found that’s particularly the case when it comes to matters of the heart.
Over one million people aged 35 to 75 have used the Heart Foundation’s Heart Age Calculator with 79 per cent discovering their ‘heart age’ is higher than their biological age, indicating an increased risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
The Calculator determines your cardiovascular status by quizzing you about your age, sex, height, weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, family history of heart attack or stroke before 60, and whether you smoke or have diabetes.
Analysis of a 50,000 strong sample of the checks showed that eight per cent of respondents had a heart age equal to their biological age and 13 per cent had a heart aged lower than their biological age. Overall, one-third of this sample group did not know both their blood pressure and cholesterol readings.
“Close to one in six people who did the test had a heart age at least 10 years higher than their real age, suggesting they have a higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke compared to the average person their age,” the Heart Foundation’s Group CEO, Adjunct Professor John Kelly, said in a statement.
Despite advances in treatment, research and prevention, heart disease kills around 48 people every day.
“The reasons behind why heart disease remains the biggest killer in Australian men are complex, but fall into a few major player categories,” Dr. Kieran Kennedy told Men’s Health. “Genetics can and do play a role, with a family history of heart disease and/or issues that can put added strain on the heart conferring higher risks for cardiovascular issues. One of the major reasons heart disease continues to be one of our biggest killers however comes down to the lifestyle and other health factors that directly impact our heart and blood vessels.”
Dr Kennedy says research indicates men are more likely to be affected by lifestyle factors like smoking, weight and poor blood sugar control, and less likely to do anything about it.
“Australian men are less likely to see a health professional or doctor for physical and mental health issues, and delays in check ups and diagnosis can put us on the back foot,” Dr Kennedy says. “Stats also show that when blokes do see a doctor, we’re less likely to take on board recommendations for lifestyle changes (diet, exercise, weight loss) and treatments.”
Although access to doctors and medical treatments play a part, Dr Kennedy says masculine norms and stereotypes make men less likely to seek help and more likely to attempt to “ride it out”.
So what can you do to improve your heart health?
“As with any and all health related issues, the first step is actually stopping to think about it in the first place,” Dr Kennedy says. “We know that some of the classic masculine stereotypes and beliefs (“it’ll be right” or the classic “suck it up”) can block men from thinking and doing when it comes to making changes for our health – for this reason, just making a decision to prioritise our heart health can make a massive difference. Whether it’s physical or mental health, there’s zero shame or loss of manhood to putting our health first and seeking help.”
Book in regular check ups with your GP to keep an eye on weight, blood fats/cholesterol, sugar levels and blood pressure.
“Particularly as men enter middle to late age, regular checks with your doctor for these factors are key,” Dr Kennedy says. “If you’re someone with a bit of extra weight, a family history of heart conditions, previous heart disease issues and/or other conditions (such as diabetes or kidney disease) that can impact heart health then making these check ups more often is a good idea.”
Next, make a few relatively simple changes to your every day routine.
Maintain a healthy weight
“Keeping our weight within a healthy range can reduce stress on heart and vessels, and regular exercise (even gentle walks) can improve our heart’s performance and overall cardiovascular health,” Dr Kennedy advises. “Just like making time for the boss, the kids and the after work beers, prioritising time for things that boost our heart health from baseline is hugely important.”
Eat a balanced diet
“A focus on a balanced diet that’s not too high in fats and sugar is protective, particularly if levels of fats and glucose in the blood need bringing down,” Dr Kennedy says. “Those with high blood pressure or related risks can benefit from watching the amount of salt in the diet, and routine checks for blood pressure, fats and blood sugar (and sticking to recommended medications if needed) can hugely reduce risk.”
“Smoking is a major player when it comes to knocking down our heart health, so reducing and ultimately quitting will have your heart singing your praises. Keeping alcohol and drug use to moderation is always a good choice too.”
Reduce stress and manage mental health
“Working on reducing stress, reaching out for help for anxiety and depression, and focusing on sleep has all been linked to lowering risk of cardiovascular disease. Struggling with low mood or anxiety is nothing to stay quiet on, and reaching out for help can improve our overall heart health too.”
“Focusing on a regular 7-8 hours of sleep per night is increasingly shown to have benefits not just for our heart, but for the other factors (like weight and sugar control) that end up impacting our risk of heart disease.”
Overall, see your health as a priority instead of downplaying it.
“Delays in seeing a doctor, speaking up or getting help can also contribute to how many men are hit by heart disease,” Dr Kennedy says. “If you’re worried about things like your weight, your blood pressure or your risk of heart disease then reaching out and see your doctor shows more, not less, strength.”