It’s arguably one of the most fascinating organs in the body, but it’s also one of the most misunderstood. When it comes to ‘heart health’, many of us don’t know the ins and outs of this vital organ, or how to tell if it’s in good shape or not.
We’ve narrowed down the basics of what you need to know about your heart, thanks to a consultant GP and the Heart Foundation. So here it is – how it works, how to keep it happy, and what to look out for when it comes to our heart health.
You know what they say — you have to understand something before you know how to tell what’s right and wrong.
The heart is a muscular organ, which pumps blood through the circulatory system, circulating it from the body, through the lungs and back out to the body.
While there are thousands of articles, videos, books and advice columns about how to keep our heart healthy, it really is down to a few life basics, often simple commonsense rules to align by.
Many we might take for granted, but it’s time we take notice and make a change becuase it could quite literally save our lives.
1. Keep your stress levels low
If your lifestyle, job, relationship or any other life factor is causing you an abnormal level of stress, consider ways you can reduce this, either eliminating the problem or reducing it through simple activities like meditation, regular exercise or yoga.
2. Get the right amount of sleep
While the jury is out on how much sleep is the right amount, the general idea is that between 7 and 9 hours of sleep is optimal for the average adult. Most will say trust your body and follow what it needs, using these average amounts as a guide. If you’re often feeling tired or lethargic, chances are you’re simply not getting enough.
3. Eat real food
Eating a well balanced diet is the key to a healthy body as a whole, but particularly when it comes to the heart. ‘Everything in moderation’ is still the general assumed rule, but the Heart Foundation suggests eating lots of:
The Foundation also recommends plenty of water and less salt.
4. Maintain ideal body weight
According to the Heart Foundation, maintaining your ideal body weight for your height and age is best for your heart. Arguably the best way to find out if you are within the ‘healthy’ weight range is to assess your Body Mass Index (BMI), which you can do through an online calculator (the Heart Foundation has one), or through a visit to your GP. If you’re at all worried about your weight, it’s best to speak with your GP about a plan to get your weight down to a healthy level and to reduce your risk of heart disease.
5. Exercise regularly
Keeping up a steady level of exercise is also vital for your heart health. Regular exercise reduces your risk of heart attack or heart disease and can be as simple as going for a walk on your lunch break, or hitting the gym a few times a week — whatever suits your lifestyle and motivates you to get moving. The Heart Foundation recommends at least 30 to 45 minutes of physical activity each day for a healthy heart.
6. See your GP for regular blood pressure checks
It’s suggested by doctors to get your blood pressure checked at least once a year, more if you have a family history of high blood pressure. It’s a simple, pain-free test and can be done in a regular GP check-up, but it could save your life.
7. Don't smoke
This seems like a simple one, but many people still believe it’s our lungs that are the only things at risk. Unfortunately our hearts suffer greatly when we smoke.
While we might think we’re looking after our hearts, there are some health symptoms that are best to look out for and have seen to straight away. Many might be signs of larger heart conditions the likes of angina, heart attack, heart failure, or arhythmia.
Many of these symptoms can have other causes and can be nothing to worry about, however, it’s really important to treat all of them seriously because when it’s your heart, you often don’t get a second chance.
If any of the below occurs, it’s important to book an appointment with your GP as soon as possible. Some symptoms may require immediate attention via ambulance.
1. Chest pain or tightness
These could be signs of angina (narrowing of your coronary arteries so that your heart is short of oxygen) or a heart attack. Typically, if the chest pain or tightness occurs with physical exercise but settles with rest, this could be a sign of angina. If it continues, even with rest, this could be a sign of potential heart attack. If the pain is severe and does not settle within a few minutes, it’s important to dial 000 immediately.
2. Shortness of breath
This could, again, be a sign of angina (if the shortness comes with exercise and settles with rest), but could also be a sign of heart failure or arhythmia (abnormal cardiac rhythm). Shortness of breath when you try to lie down at night can be a sign of heart failure. You may find yourself increasing the number of pillows you sleep on just so you can get to sleep. You may even get shortness of breath which wakes you up in the middle of the night, which could also be a sign of heart failure.
3. Swelling of the ankles
Ankle swelling can be a sign of heart failure.
4. Unusual tiredness
Unwavering tiredness that you don’t usually experience can also be a sign of heart failure.
As a general rule, if any of the first five symptoms in the below list occur, you must make an urgent appointment to see your GP, as these are all signs of an abnormal cardiac rhythm (arhythmia). The final point (loss of consciousness) requires emergency treatment immediately (dial 000).
If you’re concerned about any of the above, or you’d like more information, don’t hesitate to book an appointment to see your GP and they can best advise you on your heart health. The Heart Foundation also has a host of helpful online resources for more information, too.
Let’s all take a little more time to think of our hearts, and take the right measures to look after them as best we can. After all, if they’re happy and healthy, we’re all a lot happy and healthier.