Cardiovascular disease — the umbrella term for different conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels — is the biggest killer of Australian men. That doesn’t mean cardiovascular disease is unavoidable or a ‘natural’ part of getting older, but many men could improve what they’re doing to prevent it. Where is there room for improvement? Here are the biggest mistakes to avoid when it comes to heart health.
1. Underestimating your risk
Heart Foundation research shows that more than two-thirds of Australian adults have three or more risk factors for cardiovascular disease, but less than half of men are aware of what the risk factors are.
“Only 6% of men know that high cholesterol is a risk factor, and only 4% know that high blood pressure can also increase risk1,” says Heart Foundation’s Senior Medical Writer, Dr Jasmine Just. “This is concerning because there are usually no signs or symptoms for high blood pressure or high cholesterol, yet they increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.”
They’re also preventable or treatable. Other risk factors you can control include diet, physical activity, weight, alcohol consumption and whether you smoke. Although you can’t change risk factors such as age, sex, ethnicity, and family history, understanding how they impact you can help with monitoring and managing your heart health.
2. Passing up preventative care
Don’t let a heart attack or stroke be the first step in diagnosing cardiovascular disease. If you’re 45 years or older (30 years or older for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples), see your doctor for a Medicare-covered Heart Health Check. Your doctor will assess your blood pressure, order a blood test to check your cholesterol, ask you about lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise habits and whether you drink or smoke, and they’ll take your medical and family history.
“After a Heart Health Check with your GP, you’ll know whether you have a low, medium or high risk of a heart attack or stroke in the next five years but just as importantly, you’ll know how you can manage that risk,” Dr Just says.
3. Overlooking symptoms
“The most common warning signs of a heart attack in men are chest discomfort or pain, which can spread to the arms, neck, jaw or back,” Dr Just says. “While around half of men know that chest pain is a common heart attack symptom, far fewer know the other warning signs1, which can include jaw, neck or back pain, dizziness or lightheadedness, feeling anxious, nausea or indigestion, sweating or feeling short of breath.”
The faster a heart attack is treated, the less the heart muscle is damaged, so recognising these symptoms is critical.
4. Ignoring erection problems
Having erectile dysfunction doubles your chances of having a heart attack or stroke2. When your artery walls get built up with plaque (a process called atherosclerosis) it can restrict blood flow to the heart, brain and — in the case of erectile dysfunction — the penis. It’s the underlying cause of most heart attacks and strokes, beginning years before there are any signs or symptoms, and can also cause vascular erectile dysfunction. Issues getting or maintaining an erection can occur two to three years before cardiovascular symptoms, and three to five years before a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke3.
Always discuss erectile dysfunction with your doctor as it could be a red flag that something’s amiss with your ticker.
5. Neglecting healthy habits
It’s never too early (or too late) to start the habits that help (or quit the habits that hurt) your heart. Healthy changes to what you eat, how much you move, whether you smoke and the amount you drink can significantly lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. You can find more information on living a heart-healthy lifestyle here.
There’s also a link between mental health and heart health.
“Depression, anxiety and feeling socially isolated can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, and people with a heart condition are more likely to experience anxiety and depression4,5,” Dr Just says.
Regular exercise, eating well and seeking help for your mental health might not feel like a priority when life gets busy but these habits are critical for keeping your most important tool in top condition.
You can find out your risk of heart attack or stroke by using the Heart Foundation’s Heart Age Calculator. For heart health information and support, call the Heart Foundation Helpline on 13 11 12.
 Uddin, S. M. I., Mirbolouk, M., Dardari, Z., Feldman, D. I., Cainzos-Achirica, M., DeFilippis, A. P., Greenland, P., Blankstein, R., Billups, K. L., Miner, M. M., Nasir, K., & Blaha, M. J. (2018). Erectile dysfunction as an independent predictor of future cardiovascular events: The multi-ethnic study of atherosclerosis. Circulation