Heart Health Knowledge Part 1
29th September, 2021
Most of us know how important it is to look after our heart, but with heart and circulatory diseases being a leading cause of death, it’s good to stay up to date on the best ways to take care of you and your family’s heart health.
To help you stay informed, we’ve brought together a selection of your questions on heart health, answered by our clinical experts.
Q: I go to the gym 3 times a week, but never know how much cardio I should be doing? And is cardio the only exercise that can benefit the heart?
There is no hard and fast rule. The very fact that you’re doing regular exercise already means that you’re doing more than many people to keep fit and look after your heart. Cardio exercises are a relatively modern invention, specifically tailored to strengthen the heart muscles and increase the heart rate to keep it strong, in the same way as using any muscle regularly will make it stronger. However, although they are particularly good for this, any exercise is better than none. Three cardio sessions a week sounds about right to me and we would suggest that any additional exercise should be different just to make it more interesting and to use some other muscles. Most importantly, pick something you enjoy doing!
Q: How often should you get your blood pressure checked? I’m in my 20’s, should I be having it checked annually?
The guidelines suggest that for someone of your age, blood pressure should be checked every 3-5 years. However, I think that annually is better because, although blood pressure levels rarely increase dramatically from one year to the next, raised blood pressure hardly ever causes symptoms so, unless you have it checked, you won’t know it’s increasing. Further intervals will be decided by what blood pressure reading you record. If it’s normal you can wait another year. It’s worth mentioning that these days cheap, accurate blood pressure monitors can be bought in most chemists and online, not so that you become obsessed but more to avoid the necessity of seeing your GP or nurse. Most will come with some information about when to seek further advice.
Q: I’ve been told I may have low blood pressure as I’ve been experiencing sudden dizziness and numbness, which lasts no more than a minute, so how can I prevent that happening? I’m 30, generally healthy/stress free, with no underlying health issues.
In some ways, low blood pressure is a good sign because it means that you’re far less likely to suffer in future from a heart attack, stroke or ‘furred up’ arteries. However, the down side is that you are more prone to fainting. The interval you describe when you feel dizzy is the bit where your body is adjusting the blood pressure upwards to supply your brain adequately. You probably don’t need to do anything but just to be sure I would get your blood pressure professionally checked by your GP or nurse.
Q: I’ve been told that I might have an irregular heartbeat when having checkups in the past. How dangerous can this be and should I get it looked into properly?
It would be advisable to have this professionally checked. The reason is that, although we all have extra and missed beats every day and probably every hour, there is a common condition called atrial fibrillation (AF) which, although not necessarily dangerous in itself, makes it more likely to develop blood clots, which can travel to the brain, resulting in strokes. To avoid this, doctors thin the blood of people who have AF. An appointment with your GP and possibly an ECG will answer whether or not you have this condition.
Q: I’m in my early 30’s. What kind of heart conditions (if any) should someone my age be aware of?
At the age of 30 it’s very unusual to have any heart conditions. However, there is no age too young to do things to prevent heart disease when you are older. This includes not smoking, keeping your weight down to the correct level for your height, having your blood pressure checked to make sure it’s not too high and ditto your cholesterol. These last two may be abnormal without you knowing. There are some heart conditions which affect young people but they are very rare and tend to run in families.
Q: Several members of my family have suffered heart attacks – what can I do to prevent this happening?
The answer to this question is almost identical to the previous one. However, if you have a family history of heart attacks it’s even more important that you have your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked and that you don’t smoke. It would also be worth having a fasting blood sugar check done because high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes often go together. Also I should mention that taking regular exercise at least 3 times a week can help to keep your heart healthy.
Q: Do you have any advice on how much takeaway should be eaten within a week/month? For example is having fish and chips or a pizza once a week ok?
As so often it comes down to that phrase ‘everything in moderation’ and also depends on the rest of your health. If you’re otherwise well, not diabetic and of normal weight for your height, a pizza or fish and chips once a week would be fine. However, if you wanted to be more scientific about it you could ask for a check with your practice nurse, including having some fasting blood tests done to make sure that your cholesterol is not too high. Also beware takeaways with high levels of salt which can cause an increase in your blood pressure and can be harmful to your kidneys.
Q: When it comes to heart palpitations, should you have these checked out immediately or is it only in certain circumstances that it should be something to worry about? e.g. regularity.
Heart palpitations are a good subject. In summary you should get them checked out sooner rather than later even though most will not be anything to worry about. The reason for this is that almost all of us get missed and extra beats most days and sometimes we may get a few seconds of missed or extra beats which feel like palpitations, but when they’re checked out they are found to be so infrequent as to be unimportant. However, they can sometimes indicate a true alteration in the heart’s rhythm, which may need treating. Usually a simple ECG or a 24 hour ECG can resolve the problem of whether or not the palpitations are anything to worry about.
Q: Is there anything lifestyle wise that can cause palpitations to occur or is it something more genetic?
Lifestyle can help with palpitations. For instance reducing caffeine intake can help reduce the natural extra beats we all get and make you less likely to develop true heart rhythm problems. Doing regular exercise can also help to keep your heart healthy. However, true heart rhythm problems can run in families so it’s best to get it checked out initially with your GP.
Q: Both my parents have high blood pressure – am I at high risk of getting it myself?
The short answer here is yes, you are at risk of getting it yourself. Hypertension (high blood pressure) is not fully understood but what we do know is that it’s often inherited, so if you have two parents with it then you are at increased risk yourself. I suggest an annual blood pressure check with the need and frequency of subsequent ones being determined by the reading the doctor or nurse measures.