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How healthy is your heart?

Do you know how old your heart is? The obvious answer, of course, is 'As old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth' - but it's not that kind of age I'm talking about. You can turn back the clock on heart attack risks by improving your lifestyle.

Back in September, Public Health England (PHE) launched a 'Know Your Heart Age' tool to give people an idea of their heart health.

The statistics from people who've taken the Heart Age test make for worrying reading. One in 8 people have a heart age that's ten years older than their passport says they are, and one in ten 50-year-old men have a heart age of 60 or over. In fact, four in five people who took the test have a heart age higher than their chronological age. Fortunately, there are plenty of lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your 'heart age'.

Obviously, your age (the one on your birth certificate!) affects your risk of heart disease, and try as we'd like, we can't change that. So does your gender - women don't suffer heart attacks as often as men do, but there's no room for complacency. In fact, 68,000 women in the UK have a heart attack every year, compared to 120,000 men. But let's look at all the ways you can improve your risks.

Stop smoking

One of them is right under your nose (and that of everyone else within sniffing distance of you) - smoking.

Stopping smoking is probably the single biggest favour you can do your body, and while it may not be easy, there has never been more support. You can find out about local NHS services by phoning free on 0300 123 1044 in England, 0800 84 84 84 in Scotland or 0800 085 2219 in Wales. Alternatively, PHE's support includes a free personal quit plan.

It's often as simple as making an appointment with a local pharmacist, who can offer advice and smoking cessation aids such as nicotine replacement or the medication varenicline. You're far more likely to quit successfully by using a combination of support and smoking cessation aids (including vaping) than with willpower alone.

Amazingly, levels are now down from a peak of 45% of adults smoking to 17% of men and 13% of women today - you could join them!

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Get active

The benefits of regular exercise are pretty much endless - in addition to strengthening your heart and cutting your risk of both heart attack and stroke, weight-bearing exercise cuts your risk of osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) and can boost your mood and reduce your risk of depression.

The key from your heart's perspective is aerobic exercise - the kind that gets your heart pumping and makes you mildly out of puff. PHE recommends about 150 minutes a week - that's equivalent to half an hour five times a week. For years, 'standard' advice has recommended that people aim for 10,000 steps a day. But, in fact, doing that much or more may not help your heart much; it's all done at gentle strolling pace, while less can do great things for your heart if it's intense enough to get heart and pulse rate up.

That's where PHE initiatives such as Active 10 and or the Couch to 5k app come in. You don't need to deck yourself out in lycra or pay a fortune for a gym - they can help you incorporate activity easily into your day-to-day routine.

Check your blood pressure

High blood pressure is right up there at the top of the list too, where risk factors are concerned. It's also probably the single biggest risk factor for stroke. You won't know you've got high blood pressure unless you have it checked - except in very rare situations, high blood pressure doesn't cause short-term symptoms, but it puts a huge strain on your heart.

High blood pressure can be effectively controlled in the vast majority with daily medication - but clearly, you need to keep taking the tablets and have your blood pressure checked regularly. Cutting the salt in your diet also goes a long way to reducing your blood pressure.

How's your cholesterol?

Pretty much everyone knows that high cholesterol is a risk factor for heart attack. But it's actually more complicated than that. It's 'bad' LDL cholesterol that furs up your arteries - 'good' HDL cholesterol can actually protect you. So some people have a normal total cholesterol figure, but high levels of bad and low levels of good cholesterol. Your GP or nurse can advise on the breakdown of your cholesterol figures and whether you need to take action.

While most folk's cholesterol levels are largely down to lifestyle, there's one inherited condition which means you could be at much higher risk of heart attack without treatment. Called familial hypercholesterolaemia, or FH, this condition runs in families and means your body can't process cholesterol properly. This leads to a build-up of damaging cholesterol on your arteries, including your heart.

If you have a parent, brother, sister or child who had a heart attack under 60, or an aunt, uncle or grandparent who had one under 50, you could be at risk. Other signs include raised cholesterol and fatty lumps on your eyelids, knuckles, knees or backs of ankles. If you think you might be affected and don't know your cholesterol level, get it checked without delay.

Lose weight

Along with stopping smoking, keeping your weight within healthy limits does your heart a huge favour. Losing a stone if you're overweight cuts your blood pressure nearly as much as a daily blood pressure tablet.

Eating a heart-healthy diet, with more fruit and veg, swapping refined (white) foods for wholegrain or wholemeal ones, and butter or saturated fat for olive oil, will also help. And regular exercise is key to keeping your heart healthy.

Thanks to My Weekly where this was originally published.

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