Five experts, five tips: Heart experts on good heart health

Health professionals share their tips for a healthy lifestyle

Keep your heart healthy with these tips from the heart experts. Photograph: iStock

Keep your heart healthy with these tips from the heart experts. Photograph: iStock

 

1 Dr Paddy Barrett

Consultant cardiologist at Blackrock Clinic
“Eighty per cent of early heart disease is preventable. Eighty per cent of the factors that result in early heart disease are identifiable decades in advance. Diet is one of those factors. Understanding what a ‘heart healthy’ diet is can seem complex.

“Last year it was ‘low fat’, this year it is ‘low carb’. But what about protein? You can see how this gets complicated. It’s best to start with a simple rule. Eat real food, not food substitutes. How do you know what ‘real food’ is?

“Does it have an ingredients label? If so, treat this as a warning label. Real foods do not have labels. Could your grandmother have eaten it? If not, then it’s not a real food. Would you eat it two weeks after buying it? Real foods spoil. Go through your kitchen and apply these rules. See what’s left. Eat real food. That’s a good start.”

2 Dr Angie Brown

Consultant cardiologist and medical director of the Irish Heart Foundation
“Excessive sitting is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and death. Irish Heart Foundation research during the coronavirus pandemic found that more than half of the people working from home were sitting down over two hours and 40 minutes longer per day. Daily moderate to vigorous physical activity of 30-60 minutes can help counteract this. All physical activity counts – from climbing the stairs instead of taking the lift, walking around the block, doing yoga, gardening, or household chores, going for a run or a bike ride, high intensity interval training or team sports.

“If you are not exercising already, start small and gradually build up the frequency, intensity and duration of physical activity over time. Try swopping driving for walking, or go for a walk on a coffee or lunch break. For fun ideas on how to reduce your sitting times, visit escapeyourchair.ie.

“It’s important to talk to someone you trust if you feel stressed. Get enough sleep, try to manage your time better, plan ahead and say no if necessary. Eat healthily with more vegetables and fruit and cut down on sugar, fat, coffee and alcohol.”

3 Dr Emer Joyce

Consultant cardiologist at the Mater hospital, Dublin
“The heart is particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, cigarettes and recreational drugs. Excessive alcohol affects the heart muscle, causing the heart’s main chamber to enlarge and pump less efficiently. Alcohol also causes the heart to beat in an irregular fashion – arrhythmia. People with other cardiovascular risk factors [family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes] may be at particular risk of alcohol-induced heart problems. The good news is that heart disease caused by excessive alcohol can be reversed if you stop drinking alcohol completely.

“Smoking is associated with coronary artery disease which leads to heart attacks, angina, heart failure and stroke. Someone who quits smoking will immediately cut their risk of having a heart attack by 50 per cent compared with someone who continues to smoke. After a year, their risk of having heart disease is reduced by a further 50 per cent.

“Recreational drugs [including cocaine, amphetamines and ecstasy] can have life-threatening consequences for the heart. There is no safe limit for these substances and they should be avoided.”

4 Prof Vincent Maher

Consultant cardiologist at Tallaght University Hospital
“High blood pressure and high cholesterol are two hidden risk factors which are major causes of heart disease. No matter how slim or fit you are or how healthily you eat, there is no guarantee that you have controlled blood pressure and normal cholesterol levels.

Prof Vincent Maher would like to see blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked in all transition year students. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Prof Vincent Maher. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

“The disease process that causes heart attacks and strokes starts at a young age. It progresses silently without any symptoms, making early identification of high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol very important. I would like to see blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked in all transition year students. If high levels are detected, blood pressure and cholesterol levels can be managed by lifestyle changes and sometimes medication, and monitored every six months thereafter. A blood pressure level over 140/90 is considered high and has no symptoms. Conversely, low blood pressure may cause light-headedness with posture change. A 24-hour blood pressure recording is the best way to check and monitor blood pressure.

“There are good [HDLc Healthy] and bad [LDLc Lousy] cholesterol levels. Ideally, LDL cholesterol should be below 2 or under 1.4 mmol/l for those with proven coronary heart disease. Eighty per cent of cholesterol is genetically determined whereas 20 per cent is usually modifiable with diet and exercise. One can achieve some cholesterol reduction with a low-fat, high-fibre diet and using functional foods such as Benecol, Flora Proactive and red yeast rice extract containing monacolin K 10mg. Blood pressure reduction can occur with weight loss, salt and alcohol restriction, consumption of beetroot and stress management.”

5 Brigid Sinnott

Resuscitation manager at the Irish Heart Foundation
“I would like to see people all over Ireland learning how to do cardiac pulmonary resuscitation [CPR]. Thousands of people die every year in Ireland from cardiac arrest and about 70 per cent of these happen at home in front of a loved one. If someone who knows CPR can start performing compressions immediately, they can double or even triple a person’s chance of survival. It’s really important for people to realise that they don’t have to be a trained medical professional to perform CPR.“However, training is important and people are 10 times more likely to respond and may do better CPR if they have been trained. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we had to cancel many of our CPR training courses in communities but we have put up new videos explaining what to do when faced with a cardiac arrest on irishheart.ie. Also, in Ireland, if you call 999 or 112, the call taker will talk you through the steps in CPR and stay on the phone with you until the emergency services arrive.” 

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