28 September 2016 08:33:00

The heart of the matter

Looking after your heart isn't rocket science. The real messages have stayed the same for years.

We've all heard of devoted couples who died within months or even weeks of each other. There's little doubt that true love is one of the greatest joys of life, but can you really die of a broken heart?

There is an actual medical condition called 'broken heart syndrome' - to doctors, it goes by the ridiculously complicated name of takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Your heart becomes temporarily weakened, and it can be brought on by shock. It's thought to be related to the effect of the 'fight or flight' hormone adrenaline on the heart.

But in my experience there's a far less exotic answer to why so many husbands and wives die close together. After a lifetime of having someone to keep an eye on you (and your health), you're suddenly left alone. Maybe your loved one reminded you to take your tablets or eat healthily; maybe they did some of the tasks you find most stressful. They certainly gave you someone to share your worries with - and as they say, a problem shared really can be a problem halved. That's why family and friends can play such a vital role in helping the bereaved through such a difficult time.

Heart attack symptoms - not the same for all

We all know the 'classic' symptoms of heart attack - crushing or central chest pain, sometimes travelling into the arms, accompanied by sweating and shortness of breath.

But all too often women don't get these symptoms. Seeking help early is key to recovery - there have been dramatic improvements in survival rates from heart disease thanks to clot-busting drugs and immediate surgery to clear the blocked artery.

That's why it's so important for women to be aware of the lesser known symptoms. These include back, neck or jaw pain; feeling or being sick; sudden extreme tiredness; dizziness or light-headedness; and sudden indigestion.

Have a heart for your heart

Looking after your heart isn't rocket science. The real messages have stayed the same for years. Stopping smoking is probably the single most effective way to protect your heart, and cut your risk of cancer and lung problems.

The big risks for your heart are smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. You don't know you've got high blood pressure or cholesterol unless you get them checked. So do get regular check-ups, and take medications for these regularly. All over-40s are eligible for a free NHS heart health check every five years - make an appointment for yours!

Saturated fat - what's the truth?

Despite all the stories in the media suggesting maybe saturated fat isn't bad for you after all, you can't afford to reach for the deep fat fryer. The story that fat was fine for your heart came about because of a study that followed a big group of men who'd had a heart attack. Over the next few years, they either followed a high-fat or a low-fat diet, and the low-fat diet didn't cut their death rate.

But in fact, they probably swapped fat for sugar and refined carbohydrates (white bread etc). More detailed studies have shown than sugar and refined carbohydrates are just as bad for your heart as animal fats. The real benefits come if you cut both animal fat and sugar levels in your diet . A Mediterranean diet, with lots of fruit/veg/fish/nuts/unrefined carbohydrates (wholemeal or wholegrain foods, beans and pulses), and less meat and animal fat really can protect your heart.

Regular aerobic exercise is great for your heart in its own right - walking, dancing, cycling, yoga and swimming all count as long as they make you mildly out of puff. But it also helps you lose weight - and that will cut your blood pressure and cholesterol too, as well as relieving strain on your heart. What's more, it's a great remedy for stress - and keeping your stress levels down can protect your heart too.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.