Everyone knows the importance of looking after our heart health - over 9,000 people die of heart disease and stroke each year in Ireland, and one in five over the age of 40 will develop heart failure, with 90,000 people living with heart failure.
Those are frightening statistics indeed - but the good news is that there is plenty we can do to ensure our hearts stay healthier for longer. And during the Pfizer Healthy Towns programme, experts will be on hand to offer advice, tips and support for anyone who wants to make a change for the better.
"The Healthy Town initiative is a great opportunity for the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF) to work closely with a specific community to improve their heart health," says Janis Morrissey, head of health promotion, information and training at the IHF.
“The good news is that 80 per cent of premature heart disease and stroke is preventable with healthy lifestyles, and this project allows us to bring our health promotion programmes for schools and communities to a nominated town (Wexford Town in 2018), and support the community to eat healthily, be more active and learn CPR over the eight weeks.
“There is great benefit in communities coming together to support each other to make healthy lifestyle changes as it helps to normalise these changes, and community members can support each other to keep going.”
Dr Angie Brown, consultant cardiologist and medical director of the Irish Heart Foundation explains who is most at risk and how this can be minimised.
“People who have a strong family history of premature heart disease or stroke, people who smoke, people with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and renal (kidney) disease all have an increased risk,” she says. “The greater number of risk factors present in a person, the higher risk they are at of developing heart disease or stroke.
“So it is important to get your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels checked, stop smoking, cut down on alcohol, have a healthy diet and exercise. These are especially important if you have a family history of premature heart disease.”
Janis Morrissey agrees and says a healthy balanced diet and regular physical activity are key in terms of ensuring good heart health for now and in the future.
“Laying down good habits in childhood is so important as children are likely to carry these habits into adulthood,” she says. “Parents have a huge influence and are the primary role models for children so it’s important that, as parents, we walk the walk too.
“And balance also is important when it comes to children and young people’s diets. It is about what their diet looks like as a whole and not about avoiding a single food or nutrient. It can be helpful to think about the proportions of food on the plate as a guide. National guidelines recommend that every plate should be half salad or vegetables. Under these guidelines, a plate of rice with a small scoop of chicken in sauce on top is not balanced, but a plate which is half vegetables or salad, a quarter rice and quarter chicken is balanced.”
Dr Brown echoes that advice and says cutting out smoking is also vital.
“If you are a smoker, the single most effective thing you can do is quit smoking,” she says.
“Other small changes which we can all make are to get regular exercise, have a healthy diet, try to keep to a healthy weight and reduce alcohol intake.”
The expert also says that people with existing heart conditions should ensure to keep an eye on their symptoms and seek medical advice if they are worried about anything.
“If you know you have heart disease, it’s important to ensure your cholesterol and blood pressure is controlled and your blood sugar is controlled,” she says. “And if you are a diabetic, you need to stop smoking, have a healthy diet and exercise regularly after discussing it with your doctor.
“If you need medication for your heart it’s important to take it as prescribed - this may be needed to control your blood pressure and cholesterol, stop clots forming, help the pumping of the heart and remove fluid. And ischaemic heart disease can cause angina (heart pain) and breathlessness, so anyone with these symptoms also needs to seek medical advice.”
Dr Julie Broderick, assistant professor in physiotherapy, Trinity College Dublin, says before starting any exercise programme, anyone with heart issues should also get medical advice, but a daily walk is beneficial for most people.
“Starting gradually is number one,” she advises. “If you have specific medical health problems such as a recent cardiac event check with your GP before exercising as you may need specific advice from your doctor or chartered physiotherapist in a supervised environment such as cardiac rehabilitation or pulmonary rehabilitation.
“Try to find something you like to do and build up gradually, but make sure to drink plenty of water. Start slowly by walking at a slow, comfortable pace because even starting with a five- to 10-minute walk is a good starting point if you are feeling unfit (or have health issues). Then build up to 10-minute exercise blocks and go from there.”