Monday, June 24, 2013

Show your heart some love - Go Red for Women

Sponsored post for the Heart Foundation

I may have mentioned before that whilst I'm super-conscientious about some health-related responsibilities, I have a bad habit of neglecting others.

For instance: I never miss my six-monthly dental checkups. My attendance record would score an A+ when it comes to physiotherapy for any injuries I may have at any given time. And then there's my Osler's disease - which is really hard to ignore because it's kind of in-your-face (Get it? Nosebleeds? ...your nose is IN your face? Yeah, OK; not really funny... As you were). Anyhoo... I never miss my multiple specialist appointments, regular blood tests, CT scans OR my occasional surgeries to keep that lovely little family heirloom in check.

But, like many other women, I can fall victim to "busy mum" syndrome when it comes to other health checks which don't wave their symptoms at me like a giant red flag. I know that I probably should get certain things checked, but I'm fine, right? So it won't really matter if I don't get around to it.

Um, WRONG. So, so wrong when it comes to heart disease.

Let's back up a bit. You might remember that I wrote about an evening I attended a couple of months ago, courtesy of the Heart Foundation. Apart from cooking and enjoying some delicious healthy food, we heard some sobering messages regarding women's heart health. One of the points that particularly caught my attention was this: Heart disease kills three times as many women as breast cancer. It's not a disease confined to middle-aged men. In fact, heart disease causes the deaths of twenty-seven women every day.

Go Red for Women is the Heart Foundation's campaign to raise awareness of the facts about women and heart disease and to help us all to make healthier choices to reduce our risk. This is the fifth year of the Go Red for Women campaign and the Heart Foundation is celebrating during June. So right now is the perfect opportunity to find out what the risks are and what steps you can take to improve your heart health.

Given that 90% of Australian women have at least one risk factor for heart disease, we all have a pretty high chance of scoring one or more of these - whether we know about them or not. And acting like an ostrich is not going to help at all. You might think that you would know if you had a serious problem. But you can't feel things like high blood pressure or high cholesterol - and the first thing you may feel is a heart attack. In this case, what you don't know really CAN hurt you. So the absence of any symptoms is not a reason to avoid checkups.

What are the important things to know? Probably the most important thing I learned from the Heart Foundation blogger function and from their website is this: Heart disease is largely preventable. There is so much helpful information on the Heart Foundation's website, but here are just a few things that increase the risk:
  • Being overweight
  • Being physically inactive
  • Smoking
  • Having a family history of heart disease
  • Age - with the risk increasing significantly at and after menopause
  • Taking oral contraceptives
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
I'm OK on most of those: I'm a healthy weight, I've never smoked, I'm physically active, no diabetes, blood pressure is on the low side, and contraceptives are an annoyance of the past. BUT... I do have high cholesterol and I am at "that" age where my risk steeply increases, thanks to hormonal changes.

The good news for most of us is that many of the risk factors ar modifiable. Which means that you can reduce or eliminate them by making some lifestyle changes. Healthier food choices, starting (or increasing) an exercise program, quitting smoking, losing weight - all stuff you can control. Even high blood pressure and high cholesterol are modifiable in many cases by doing exactly those same things.

I took all of this on board and made an appointment to see my GP. I read up on all the info beforehand and printed off the "Questions to ask your GP" document. My family doctor is great. I've been a patient at the clinic for over thirty years, and she's been my doctor now for twelve years or so. She's seen me transform from an obese and unfit woman who ate too much of the wrong things and liked a drink a little bit too much into the healthy, fit person I am today. She knows how important fitness and health are to me, and encourages me all the way.

So I rocked up to my appointment and we went through the Heart Health Check. I got a gold star for almost everything. I don't smoke, have barely had a drink since January, I eat better than 90% of the population and exercise vigorously 5-6 days per week. I don't have diabetes, a family history of heart disease, and whilst I'm peri-menopausal, that in itself isn't a big deal given the lack of other problems.

Then it was onto some simple tests:
- Blood pressure: a very satisfactory 110/70
- BMI is a healthy 20.9
- Waist circumference is 66. Well under the 80cm risk zone for women.

A+ for awesome blood pressure. 
The doc didn't want to order an ECG for me, partly because she didn't feel it was warranted and partly because I've had a number of heart-related tests in recent years due to other medical issues (including an ECG and a fancy-pants echo-doppler imaging thingie) and my heart was in tip-top condition. So, all good, right?

Not quite.

My most recent cholesterol test results were not what I was expecting. My cholesterol has gone UP. Significantly. My doctor read out the numbers and we sat there looking at each other, stupefied. It makes no sense, given the fact that over the past three months I've been consistently spot-on with nutrition, exercised my butt off (literally) and have dropped five kilograms. I rarely eat processed food, and whilst I do eat coconut oil and butter, I eat them in small amounts and I also eat mainly "good" fats like olive oil, walnuts and salmon.

We had a bit of a discussion about what to do about it and agreed that for now, we'd do nothing. Considering my absence of any other risk factors - apart from age - the doc isn't particularly concerned. She doesn't even want to re-run the test for twelve months, so that's confirmation that she isn't worried. Me, I'm going to do some research and see what I can find out about factors that can adversely affect test results. I followed instructions, but it's possible that there's something I was unaware of that may have had an impact on my cholesterol levels on the day. And meanwhile, I'll just keep doing what I've been doing - hitting the weights, riding my bike, eating my veggies and mostly staying off the grog.

I did walk out of the clinic feeling as though I'd got an exam paper back with a big, red "F" on it. It was like a personal affront - I do everything right, and I get THIS? But I've calmed down now and am looking at it a different way. It's just one risk factor out of many, and not the end of the world. There is a family history of high cholesterol, which can be a contributing cause - so I can blame it on my genes, to a degree. That doesn't mean that it's pointless living a healthy lifestyle, of course. I can only imagine what the numbers might be if I sat around on the couch eating crap all day.

The outcome may not have been exactly what I expected, but that's the whole point, right? The things that you don't know that can hurt you, as I mentioned before... I'd rather know and do everything I can to combat the risk, than not know and blindly go about my business, potentially making choices that would increase my risk.

To find out more about taking charge of your own heart health, start here, with the Heart Foundation's page on women and heart disease. You can also find out about healthy eating, active living and all sorts of helpful info. Arm yourself with all the information and if you're over 45 OR you have several risk factors, make an appointment to see your GP for a heart health check. Don't let the first warning of heart disease be a heart attack.

Got a question or concern? Call the Heart Foundation's Free Health Information Service 
on 1300 36 27 87 during business hours. Their qualified medical staff are happy to help 
- and no question is ever too silly to ask.

Disclosure: This post was sponsored by the Heart Foundation, who asked me to share my thoughts on the process of consulting my GP for a Heart Health Check. I did receive payment for this post, however it's an honest account of my personal experience. 



Vicki said...

I admit I'm a bit naughty when it comes to keeping up all the health checks, esp now that I have hit the over 40 thingie.
I had that moment a few years ago when my doctor told me I had high BP and need meds ... what?! I was training for a half at the time and had NONE of the risk factors other than genetics ... I'm still trying to accept this!

Debbish said...

I'm pretty slack on regular checks... though am not great on your checklist: overweight, high BP, history of heart problems.... Hopefully I'm at least trying to address it though!

PS. Bummer about your cholesterol level!

Kek said...

Your'e right Deb - you are doing something about it, and that's the important thing. :)

No biggie on the cholesterol - I'm thinking it was an aberration, so not worrying unduly.

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