Management & treatment

Last updated 05 April 2017 — Last reviewed 15 January 2014

There are many different ways of managing and treating cardiovascular disease. These include managing your blood pressure, cholesterol, best types of food to eat, being active and also managing depression and diabetes if you have them.

The following information discusses medical management for cardiovascular disease.

Managing blood pressure

Know and understand your blood pressure numbers to make sure they are not too high. Blood pressure numbers include:

  • systolic pressures – the pressure when the heart beats while pumping blood
  • diastolic pressures – the pressure when the heart is at rest between beats

You often see blood pressure numbers written with:

the systolic number first/the diastolic number second - such as 120/80 mmHg

The mmHg is millimeters of mercury which are the units used to measure blood pressure.

Have your doctor regularly check your blood pressure. At the same time, discuss what a healthy target is for you. High blood pressure is often referred to as hypertension.

Regular physical activity, a healthy eating plan and, if you are overweight, losing weight will help lower blood pressure. In addition, there are medications to keep high blood pressure in check. Some women will need to take medication for high blood pressure to reduce the risk of further damage. 

Eating to lower blood pressure

What to do How it helps
Reduce salt intake

Reducing sodium (salt) intake reduces both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. The effect of reducing sodium intake is greater in people with hypertension (high blood pressure) than with normal blood pressure.

DASH diet DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is a healthy diet rich in vegetables, fruit, low fat dairy foods, nuts and wholegrains and low in sodium. It contains fish, chicken and lean meat and is low in saturated fats. Research has shown that people consuming this type of diet have reduced their blood pressure.
Limit alcohol intake There is an association between high blood pressure and alcohol consumption. It is recommended people with high blood pressure ensure they are following the general guidelines for alcohol consumption (i.e. not consuming more than 2 standard drinks each day).

Managing cholesterol

Know and understand your cholesterol levels. Total cholesterol can be high from a young age, so keep checking. There are general guidelines that help you to know if your cholesterol is too high, however things like family history and cultural background should also be considered when deciding if your cholesterol is too high.

Generally it is recommended that if your cholesterol is heading towards 6.0 or more, you will need to take action to reduce it.

A slow build-up of cholesterol in the inner linings of the heart's arteries is one of the main underlying causes of heart disease. 'Bad' (LDL) cholesterol can build up in arteries, narrowing them and making it harder for blood to flow through. Narrow arteries can become clogged, stopping the flow of blood. Clogged arteries may result in a lack of oxygen to the heart (a heart attack) or to the brain (a stroke).

High blood cholesterol is one of the three main factors that create a risk of developing heart disease. The other two risk factors are cigarette smoking and high blood pressure.

Maintaining your weight, preventing weight gain and, if possible, losing a few kilograms if you are overweight, is integral in managing your blood cholesterol levels. Healthy foods and regular physical activity will assist in the management of high cholesterol levels but there are also a number of medications that may be required to keep cholesterol in check. Some women will need to take medication for high cholesterol as an important way of reducing future damage to blood vessels and arteries.

Eating to lower cholesterol

The following food suggestions can help you manage and reduce your cholesterol.

Eat less saturated fat Saturated fat is found mainly in animal products, palm oil and coconut oil. You can reduce your intake by using low fat dairy products, leaner meat and limiting processed foods that are high in saturated fat (e.g. pastry, biscuits, chips, pies).
Include small amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats
  • Using mono or polyunsaturated fats by including nuts, seeds, oils and margarines will assist in lowering cholesterol levels
  • Fish, and other sources of omega-3 fats, can reduce triglycerides and will help improve cardiovascular health – try to eat at least 2 serves of fish each week
Include fibre-rich foods Your body requires both insoluble and soluble fibre. Soluble fibre has an important role in lowering LDL cholesterol. Sources of soluble fibre include rolled oats, muesli, oat bran, rice bran, barley, legumes, fruit and vegetables. Include some sources of soluble fibre as part of your fibre intake each day.
Include plant-sterols
  • Plant sterols lower cholesterol levels by inhibiting the absorption of cholesterol from the gut – they are found naturally in vegetable oils and in small amounts in most plant foods, but sterol-enriched products can help you to increase your intake of plant sterols and reduce LDL cholesterol
  • Sterol-enriched foods include spreads (eg Pro-active, HeartPlus) and milk (eg HeartActive) – aim to have 2-3 serves of sterol-enriched foods each day (1 serve = 2 teaspoons of spread or 1 cup milk) to help reduce LDL cholesterol levels
Include a small handful of nuts each day Eating about 30g of nuts each day has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol and reduce risk of heart disease – aim to include a variety of different types of nuts.

Other activities to help manage and lower cholesterol:

  • exercise
  • weight management
  • not smoking
  • managing your alcohol intake
  • keeping your blood pressure at a normal level
  • medication

Managing weight & physical activity

When it comes to managing cardiovascular disease managing your weight and being physically active are vital. There are many different ways of managing excess weight. If you are struggling with weight gain or excess weight, your doctor can discuss options with you and there is also more information on healthy living.

Regular physical activity can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels as well as reduce body fat. If you have already had a heart attack or stroke, physical activity may be part of your rehabilitation.

Managing depression

Depression has been linked to cardiovascular disease so it is important to manage your depression if you have it. See our webpages for the symptoms of depression and for more information on what you can do if you have depression. If you are worried about depression and your cardiovascular risk please see your doctor.

Managing diabetes

If you have already been diagnosed with diabetes it is important to know and understand how to manage both your diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Have regular checks of your cholesterol, blood pressure and HbA1c and waist measurements.

Diabetes, depression and cardiovascular disease

There may be a physical connection between the hormones that affect diabetes and an increased risk of depression, however more research is needed.

Because there is so much publicity about type 2 diabetes, being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes can cause some women to feel embarrassed or guilty. If you are feeling depressed or anxious about your diabetes see your doctor and discuss the best ways to manage and treat the depression and your diabetes.

Medications

Aspirin

Evidence suggests taking low-dose aspirin may reduce heart attack and stroke for women who:

  • have a high risk of having a heart attack or stroke and
  • are over 65 years

Women who already have heart disease may be prescribed low-dose aspirin.

Discuss with your doctor the benefits of you taking aspirin weighed against any risk of stomach or bleeding problems from taking the aspirin.

Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)

There is a growing body of evidence that HRT taken from the time of menopause may reduce heart disease risk, especially oestrogen alone in women who no longer have a uterus. HRT is not yet being recommended specifically for this purpose but heart protection may be an important effect in women under 60 or less than 10 years from menopause.

Other medications

Other medications are available to manage causes of cardiovascular disease such as 'statins' for example. Please discuss medications with your doctor.

Referrals

A doctor is your best source for information and further referral to other accredited health practitioners who may be able to help you with your cardiovascular health such as:

  • cardiologists to test and monitor your heart
  • dietitians to help with weight management and healthy eating
  • psychologists if you have feelings of depression or aloneness
  • exercise physiologists to help with identifying the right physical activity for your age, stage and lifestyle
  • naturopaths for advice about supplements and vitamins that might help you

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at January 2014.

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