Seven simple steps to a healthy life

Posted on August 8th, 2013
Categories: News

When it comes to guarding against heart disease, diabetes and cancer, it seems seven is a magic number. Lisa Salmon reports on the seven simple steps to avoiding common serious diseases.

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Life’s Simple 7 rules, compiled by the American Heart Association, were designed as easy ways of improving heart health.

However, new research has now found that the seven steps, which include eating well, being active and watching your blood pressure, can help keep other major diseases at bay too.

The Simple 7 were revealed to reduce the risk of cancer by up to 51%, compared with people who didn’t follow any of the rules, as well as having a significant impact on the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The study, by Northwestern University in the US, also found that following four of the seven steps led to a 33% risk reduction in cancer, and adopting just one or two rules cut risk by 21%.

Laura Rasmussen-Torvik, lead author of the study, says: “This can help health professionals provide a clear, consistent message about the most important things people can do to protect their health and lower their overall risk for chronic diseases.”

And Pav Kalsi, clinical advisor at Diabetes UK, says: “There’s good evidence that eating a healthy diet, keeping active and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

“For a person who already has diabetes, maintaining healthy blood glucose, cholesterol and blood pressure levels will reduce the chance of complications, such as heart attacks, stroke or kidney disease.”

Amy Thompson, a senior cardiac nurse from the British Heart Foundation (BHF), says heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death in the UK, and points out: “We already know that they share some common risk factors.

“Quitting smoking is the single best thing you can do for your heart health, but getting plenty of exercise, eating a healthy balanced diet and watching your blood pressure and blood cholesterol are all vital ways to protect your heart.”

She suggests people over the age of 40 who have any health concerns should ask their GP for a free health check, which aims to identify problems early, and give advice on simple lifestyle and health measures like the factors outlined in the Simple 7.

“These factors all link in with each other,” stresses Thompson, “so try to address as many of them as you can. But any reduction in risk is beneficial, especially if you start young – so do it now!”

Dr Helga Groll, health information officer at Cancer Research UK, adds: “The study is a reminder that a healthy lifestyle reduces the risk of more than one type of disease.

“Living a healthy lifestyle doesn’t guarantee a person won’t develop cancer or other diseases, but it helps stack the odds in our favour.”

LIFE’S SIMPLE 7

Here’s an outline of the seven steps…

:: EAT A HEALTHY DIET

A balanced diet is advised, with a good variety of vegetables and fruit – five a day is a good aim – as well as daily portions of wholegrain fibre and carbs such as potatoes, rice and wholegrain bread and pasta.

Dairy and protein-rich meat and eggs are important too but portions should be controlled, and two portions of oily fish a week is great for heart health. Food and drinks high in saturated and trans fats and/or sugar shouldn’t be consumed too often.

:: MAINTAIN A HEALTHY WEIGHT

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) says the evidence that being overweight increases the risk of cancer is stronger than ever. After not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight is the most important cancer prevention measure. Research shows fat cells release hormones such as oestrogen, which can increase the risk of certain cancers. Excess fat, particularly stored around the waist, can have a similar effect.

Being overweight can also significantly increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. One of the easiest ways to check you’re a healthy weight is by measuring your body mass index (BMI), which should be between 18.5 and 24.9. (Visit www.bhf.org.uk/bmi/BMI_Calc.html)

:: MAINTAIN HEALTHY CHOLESTEROL LEVELS

Too much saturated fat and trans fats can increase the amount of cholesterol in the blood which, over time, can lead to heart disease because too much ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol builds up and narrows the walls of the coronary arteries to the heart.

HDL ‘good’ cholesterol (found in foods like fruit, veg, oats and oily fish) helps remove ‘bad’ cholesterol from the blood and return surplus amounts to the liver.

As well as being a crucial factor in heart health, studies have found that high levels of HDL cholesterol may reduce the risk of some cancers. Plus, people with diabetes are more prone to having unhealthy cholesterol levels.

:: KEEP BLOOD PRESSURE DOWN

Eating too much salt can increase the risk of developing high blood pressure – because the body holds extra water to wash the salt away, which can increase pressure on blood vessel walls. Left untreated, high blood pressure can cause the heart to become enlarged and pump less effectively, possibly leading to heart failure.

High blood pressure is a big risk factor for strokes, too, and studies have also found that high blood pressure may sometimes lead to a greater risk of certain cancers.

Increasing physical activity, losing weight, reducing salt intake (particularly hidden salts in many types of bread and convenience foods, for instance), cutting down on alcohol and eating a balanced, healthy diet can all reduce blood pressure.

:: BE ACTIVE

Being physically active provides long-term benefits for both the heart and general health, helping control weight and reduce blood pressure and cholesterol.

Being active in middle age can increase life expectancy by two years, the same benefit as giving up smoking, says the BHF.

Government guidelines recommend a total of 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity – which makes you feel warmer, breathe harder and makes your heart beat faster – each week. This can include everyday activities like brisk walking and gardening, as well as things like swimming or playing sport.

:: DON’T SMOKE

Smokers are almost twice as likely to have a heart attack as people who have never smoked, warns the BHF. Smoking damages the lining of the arteries and narrows them, makes the heart beat faster, and blood more likely to clot.

Cancer Research UK says smoking accounts for one in four UK cancer deaths, and nearly a fifth of all cancer cases. It causes the majority of lung cancers, and increases the risk of more than 12 other types including cancers of the mouth, liver, pancreas, stomach, kidney, bladder, cervix and bowel.

For people with diabetes, smoking increases the risk of complications including cardiovascular disease, nerve, kidney and eye damage. (For help quitting smoking, visit smokefree.nhs.uk)

:: REGULATE BLOOD SUGAR

High blood glucose levels affect the walls of the arteries, making them more likely to develop fatty deposits and narrow, possibly leading to heart attacks. High glucose can occur when a person is diabetic, and type 2 diabetes is closely linked with being overweight and physically inactive.

:: For more information about Life’s Simple 7, visit mylifecheck.heart.org