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Heart Health

Your heart and all the blood vessels are called the cardiovascular system.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) refers to a group of diseases and illnesses of the heart and blood vessels and includes:

  • Coronary artery disease (narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the heart, which can lead to chest pain (angina) or heart attacks)
  • Cerebrovascular disease (strokes and other problems with blood vessels in the brain)
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Peripheral vascular disease (blocked blood vessels in the legs)

Things that increase everyone's risk of cardiovascular diseases

  • Being a male over 45 years or a female over 55 years
  • Being male
  • Being HIV positive
  • Having a family history of cardiovascular disease

The risk of getting a disease that affects this part of the body generally increases with age, however all people with HIV can face increased risk due both to infection with HIV, and some HIV treatments as these can both make changes to your blood including unhealthy levels of cholesterol and triglycerides (fats).

Low density lipoprotein (LDL) is also known as bad cholesterol because it can add to the build-up of plaque in your arteries and increase your risk of getting coronary heart disease.

High density lipoprotein (HDL) is also known as good cholesterol because it helps to protect you against coronary heart disease.

Other things that increase your risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Note that some of the things on this list are interconnected. For example, being overweight and diabetes.

  • Smoking tobacco and marijuana
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Amphetamine use (e.g - meth/crystal/ice)
  • High blood pressure
  • Poor diet
  • Not doing enough physical activity
  • Obesity or having a belly
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood glucose levels
  • Insulin resistance
  • Diabetes
  • Menopause

To stay fit and healthy it is particularly important for people with HIV to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease. The best way to reduce your risk is to make healthy choices now.

What you can do to live well:

  • Get your blood pressure and blood lipids (fats) and glucose levels done regularly. Both your lipids and glucose levels should be measured before starting or changing HIV treatments, ask your doctor about these.
  • Stop smoking. This can be one of the hardest things someone can do, but can also be one of the most rewarding. It is the single most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. Stopping smoking results in large decreases in your risk within the first year.
    • Most smokers say they would like to quit, and may have tried at least once. Some are successful the first time, but many other people try a number of times before they finally give up for good. Remember to celebrate each time you are able to quit, knowing you are one step closer to giving up for good.
    • If you are thinking of stopping smoking, or have made the decision to stop, it is important to choose a method that suits you and your lifestyle.
    • Bear in mind that research has shown that using combination approaches offer the best long term success rates. So for example, you might decide to cut down your smoking gradually; however, if you cut down AND use nicotine replacement therapy (e.g. nicotine patches, tablets, gum etc.) then you are more likely to succeed than if you only use the cutting down method.
    • You can talk to your GP for support and suggestions as well. They can advise you of new and emerging pharmaceutical therapies and treatments that could make quitting even easier.
    • For the cost of a local call from anywhere in Australia, the Quitline, contactable on 131 848 or 137 848, provides advice and assistance to smokers who want to kick the habit. The Quitline can help smokers plan their attempt, give advice on different techniques, provide information on the availability of stop smoking programs and supply written material on how to quit.
    • Read the AFAO fact sheet on giving up smoking
  • Reduce your alcohol intake. Excessive alcohol use is known to be associated with high blood pressure. There are also studies, however, that indicate that a small glass of alcohol each day may reduce your risk of heart disease.
  • Aim for a diet that's good for your heart.
    • Eat a variety of foods
    • Eat more vegetables, wholegrains, fruit, nuts and seeds (every day)
    • Eat less saturated fats from foods such as meats and full-fat dairy foods, sugary fatty and salty foods
    • Drink mainly water
    • For extra assistance, visit a dietician who can give you advice on healthy choices that will suit you and you will enjoy eating.
    • Visit the 'Healthy Eating' pages of the Heart Foundation site for more information.
  • Keep an eye on your body weight. Weight loss tends to reduce your levels of bad cholesterol and raises your levels of good cholesterol. If you are overweight, each kilogram you lose will immediately reduce your blood pressure.
  • Exercise more. Even at a moderate level, exercise improves your cardiovascular health. Aerobic exercise lowers your bad cholesterol levels and increases your good cholesterol levels, and can also lower your blood pressure. You can:.
    • Take a walk, alone, with a friend or a dog.
    • Join a gym. Try class activities if you have trouble getting motivated or do aqua aerobics which are gentle on the joints. Note: 'pumping iron' at the gym, does not achieve the same 'healthy heart' benefits of aerobic exercise, though it can assist with weight loss through an increase in your lean muscle. If you like to work with weights, add aerobic activity to your program.
    • Leave the car at home and take public transport. You might be surprised by how much more walking you do without noticing it.
  • Get elevated lipid (blood fat) levels treated where appropriate. There are different options that may be tried to lower your lipid levels if you are concerned that they are high. Speak to your doctor about the options suitable for you.
  • Get hypertension (high blood pressure) treated appropriately. Exercise and diet modification may be attempted first when mild hypertension is observed. If the hypertension persists or is severe, then treatment will usually be recommended. Speak to your doctor about what will work for you.
  • Talk to your doctor about other possible treatments that could work for you, rather than stopping treatment.
  • Don't do it alone. You don't have to make a lot of changes at once, you will probably find it more manageable to prioritise what's most important to you and by doing it in steps. It can be difficult, but working with others has more chance of long-term success than doing it on your own. Use all the resources you can muster to help you stick to your resolve. Draw on friends, family and healthcare professionals for their support.
  • Read the Heart Foundation's resource Cardiovascular wellness for people living with HIV.