At the start of this month, bunch of health professionals chose to swap their white coats for lycra to bike the length of New Zealand raising money for research into cardiovascular disease.
Why? Because cardiovascular disease is the biggest killer of New Zealanders – both men and women – causing 40 percent of all deaths annually. Approximately 10,500 people die from cardiovascular disease each year – making it more deadly than all forms of cancer.
One in 20 adults has been diagnosed with coronary heart disease – the most common of cardiovascular problems. It is responsible for the deaths of 16 New Zealanders day, or one person every 90 minutes. Of the approximately 161,000 adults affected by coronary heart disease, around 118,500 suffer from angina and 89,400 have had heart attack resulting in them being hospitalised.
While some of those statistics relate to aged people – and hearts do eventually give out, many deaths from heart disease are premature and preventable.
It’s worth trying to beat the odds and the month of February is great time to start. As well as the epic fundraising bike ride, February 6-13 has been declared New Zealand’s annual Heart Week, run by the Heart Foundation to raise awareness of New Zealand’s biggest killer.
It’s timely reminder that as employers and managers we should be educating employees on the risk factors for heart disease, showing them the tools to help them assess their personal level of risk and implementing some simple steps in the workplace to help improve heart health.
This is an area worth investing in. Research conducted by Southern Cross in 2009 showed 64 percent of employees are classified as overweight with 34 percent classified as obese. (According to the Heart Foundation, approximately one in two New Zealanders are obese or overweight.)
In fact, body mass index (BMI) was the worst performing of the nine health measures surveyed.
This is cause for concern, given the proven link between high BMI and heart disease. recent 10-year study of 20,500 men and women conducted in the Netherlands found that half of all fatal heart disease cases and quarter of all non-fatal cases are linked to being overweight and having high BMI.
The good news is that many of the preventative factors such as an improved diet, smoking cessation and increased exercise will not only improve employees’ general health and wellbeing, but are likely to result in happier and more productive workforce.

Risk factors
There is no single cause of heart disease but the way person lives their life makes significant difference to their risk of developing it. It’s simple sum. The more risk factors person has, the greater chance they have of developing heart disease.
There are some risk factors that cannot be changed. These include:
• Age;
• Ethnicity;
• Gender;
• Family history of heart attack or stroke.
But, the good news is that World Health Organization research indicates that 80 percent of premature heart disease and strokes worldwide are preventable.

Assessing your risk
The Southern Cross Heart Health Test makes it easy for person to assess their personal risk of developing heart disease. It’s tool developed by internationally recognised epidemiologist Rod Jackson of Auckland University, and is easy to use. It will show person’s likelihood of having heart attack or stroke in the next five years as well as highlighting the lifestyle risk factors person should address to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease. Visit and try it out.
If the test shows person is at risk, they should go to their GP to carry out detailed risk assessment. The doctor can work out whether the person has very high, high, moderate or mild risk of developing cardiovascular disease in the next five years and will help person find ways of reducing the risk.

Prevention – how to create heart-healthy workplace
The most effective way to improve your workplace’s heart health is through workplace wellness programme that includes health checks for employees and tailored health and wellness activities. To improve heart health, most programmes should include efforts focused on the following:
• Smoking cessation or prevention (one in five New Zealanders older than 15 smoke and around 4500 people in New Zealand die prematurely from smoking each year);
• Increasing physical activity;
• Managing and reducing stress;
• Promoting healthy eating;
• Managing weight;
• Educating workers about heart disease, including how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR); and
• Structuring the workplace in ways that encourage healthy behaviours.
Even if you don’t have formalised workplace wellness programme there are some simple, inexpensive ways to improve the heart health of your employees.
The following are tips from the World Heart Federation for promoting heart health in the workplace:
• Offer information to workers, such as leaflets about the risk factors for heart disease and stroke.
• Establish health policies, eg, smoking ban in the worksite.
• Encourage good eating habits, eg, offer information about the calorie and fat content of cafeteria food if you have one; add more wholegrain, natural products, fruits, and vegetables to the menu.
• Encourage workers to be physically active during their breaks. moderate amount of exercise – at least 30 minutes day – can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, and improves productivity at work.
• Offer easy access to drinking water for employees, partners and suppliers in office buildings, outdoor worksites, and in meeting rooms to reduce consumption of sugary drinks.

Employees can promote their own health in many ways.
• Eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables day. Make smart choices, like choosing the ‘healthy menu’ in the cafeteria or bringing food from home.
• Take the stairs, go for walk during breaks, or get off the bus couple of stops earlier and walk the rest of the way.
• Use less salt. Try to limit your salt intake to about teaspoon per day. Avoid processed foods, which often contain high levels of salt.
• Say no to tobacco. Heart disease risk will reduce by half within year and will return to normal level over time.
• Maintain healthy weight. Weight loss, especially with lowered salt intake, reduces blood pressure. High blood pressure is major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
• Know your numbers. Visit healthcare professional who can measure your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels, together with waist-to-hip ratio and body mass index (BMI). Once you know your risk,
you can develop plan of action to improve your heart health. M

How to Recognise Heart Attack

• Heavy pressure, tightness, crushing pain or unusual discomfort in the centre of the chest, spreading to shoulders, neck, jaw and/or arms; lasting more than 10-15 minutes.
• This may be accompanied by sweating, nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath.
• Sometimes the symptoms can be unusual – for example feeling of “indigestion” or heartburn, or unusual tiredness.
Source: National Heart Foundation of New Zealand

Peter Tynan is chief executive Health Insurance, Southern Cross Medical Care Society.

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