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Keep young at heart through the decades of life

If there’s one certainty in life, it’s that we don’t stay young forever. But no matter what your age, you can take care of your heart health and keep cholesterol levels in check with a little care and attention to the foods you eat and the lifestyle choices you make. (2,3)

Inherit high cholesterol

Take small steps to build heart healthy foundations

At Benecol® we know that eating well and living well are central to achieving and maintaining good cholesterol levels. Nevertheless, independent of the date on your birth certificate, the mainstays of a nutritious, well-balanced diet remain. Everything in moderation, eating lots of plant foods and choosing from a variety of ingredients that are low in saturated fat, sugar and salt. Certain decades of life and the changes they bring – be they lifestyle or hormonal based – can require you to sharpen your attention on particular risk factors for CHD.

With all this in mind, we’ve put together some useful information and advice to help you live a healthier and happier life. Here are a few important facts to try to hold back the heart age years…

In your 20s… Establishing the foundations for a heart healthy diet and lifestyle

Of course, it’s easy to feel carefree when in your 20s – you can miss gym sessions and overeat without your weight creeping up too much, enjoy a big night out with no worries other than needing a day to recover. And apart from some young people that have inherited heart conditions and high cholesterol levels, like familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH), the heart problems of old age seem a very long way off.

But, it’s important to remember that some of these behaviours – especially smoking, drinking too much alcohol, lack of exercise and unhealthy eating habits – can shape your future heart health, increasing your chances of developing CHD down the road. [6].

  • Get your 5-a-day of fruit and vegetables. To live a long, healthy life, fruit and veg should always sit right at the heart of your diet. And remember, frozen, canned, dried all count – and are often cheaper than fresh! One portion is generally 80g – for example, a medium piece of fruit such as an apple, pear, orange or banana; a bowl of salad; 3 tablespoons of mixed frozen veg; a large sweet potato or a slice of melon [16].
  • Stay within the recommended alcohol limits. That means less than 14 units of alcohol per week. Don’t save them up only for Friday night either – moderation is key here for both your physical and mental health.
  • Don’t smoke. More people aged 25 to 34 years smoke (25%) than any otherage group [14]. Don’t start smoking and if you are a smoker, ditch the cigarettes now – ask your GP or practice nurse for advice on giving up.
  • Choose healthier cooking techniques. Learning to cookfor yourself is a great step towards eating more healthily – and grilling, roasting, baking, steaming and boiling are all healthier cooking methods to frying. Why not invest in a wok or non-stick frying pan, so you can capture the flavour and nutrients of food – without the extra saturated fat and calories.
  • Take up a sport. It doesn’t have to be competitive, but any exercise – hiking, jogging, aerobics, dancing or cycling that gets your heart beating faster for the recommended at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity every week – or a mixture of both. It’s a healthier way to socialize than pubbing or clubbing – and the added bonus is healthier cholesterol levels and a slimmer waistline. What’s not to love?
  • Enjoy nights out but healthily. Nights out can mean drinking too much, and fatty and salty takeaways at the end of the evening to satisfy late night munchies. Why not stay teetotal by driving and opt for healthier high street choices, like a chicken kebab with pitta and salad or a thin base tomato and veg pizza?

Top tip – Check your family history to find out if you’re at higher risk of developing CHD, and make sure your GP is aware of any genetic conditions.

  • Get enough sleep. Feeling tired can affect your eating and drinking habits, encouraging you to rely on unhealthy in-between meal nibbles for energy – and this can affect both your waistline and cholesterol levels. Try to get into a good bedtime routine and make sure you get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep every night. As a parent, remember to nap when you can.
  • Eat mindfully. Are you eating the kid’s leftovers as well as your own meal, having two biscuits with your morning cuppa, or simply munching mindlessly on snacks to try and stay alert all day? Sound familiar? Keep a food dairy for a week, listing every single mouthful you eat and drink to help you become more aware of your own eating patterns, and perhaps spot opportunities for positive changes. Here’s a little help from Benecol on how to manage your nutrition: GUIDE ON HEART HEALTH.
  • Reduce your stress levels. Easier said than done these days, but stressful days at home and at work can lead to bad habits, like having a glass or two of wine to unwind at the end of the day, smoking and comfort eating – none of which is good for your heart. Set aside just 15 minutes during the day for mindfulness or meditation – a quiet time for you to reflect on the good points of your day and help change the way you cope with stress.
  • Get some exercise. Exercise can often fall by the wayside in your 30s – you used to play tennis, and go to the gym every other day, but now the only exercise you get is running after the kids. It may be hard to find the time, but getting organised will pay off – exercise is a great way to combat stress, boost ‘good’ cholesterol while reducing ‘bad’ cholesterol, and use up any extra calories to fight excess weight gain [18]. Opt for solution at home (garage gym) or in close proximity (leasure centres, nearby parks/woods).
  • Make time and take time to relax. Strike a happy balance between looking after your family and still finding time to look after yourself. Make relaxation time a priority for yourself, whether it is taking up a new exercise hobby like yoga, going for a walk, listening to music or just enjoying a good book while soaking in the bath.
  • Check food labels. Lots of products have front-of-pack nutrition labels, as well as more detailed information on the back, to guide you on the amount of calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt you and your family are eating. Use these nutrition labels to help you make healthier choices and eat a more balanced diet.

Top tip – Even if you think you’re still invincible in your 30s, it’s important to pay attention to your heart health. Especially some risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol don’t produce noticeable symptoms and are already high in some thirty year olds [14].

In your 40s… Adaptation and prevention

We’re living longer than ever – the average expectancy is about 80 years [19] – which is wonderful. This also means that your heart has to keep beating longer than ever, too, so midlife is a great time to make changes to optimise your diet and lifestyle habits – and help ensure that those extra years ahead of you are spent in good shape.

For certain, it’s not always that easy to nudge yourself into healthier habits. Many parents in their forties have gone to great lengths to make sure their children eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and low in saturated fat. But with youngsters now heading off to university and fewer family meals to prepare, finding the motivation to cook from scratch can be difficult. However, choosing convenience over health is not a good idea as far as your cholesterol levels and heart health are concerned.  And as women approach the menopause – and levels of the hormone estrogen begin to dip, it’s more important than ever to look after your heart and eat well.

Your heart health challenge…

As you creep past 40 you may find you weigh more than you did in your 20s – and your belt size has gone up a notch, or two? This is because our body composition naturally changes as we age – we tend to lose muscle mass and gain fat. As muscle burns more calories, losing it slows down our metabolism, making it a little harder to keep weight off and, along with changing hormone levels, encourages fat to settle around our middle [17, 18].

Being more of an ‘apple’ shape – and carrying extra weight around your waist can raise your blood cholesterol and triglycerides (another type of fat in your blood) – and make other risk factors for CHD, like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, more likely [20].

Here are some heart happy ideas for your 40s:

  • Get your cooking mojo back. Cooking from scratch as much as possible can help you eat healthily by allowing you to control the amount of fat, salt and sugar you add. If you’ve lost your cooking mojo, why not try batch cooking and freezing individual portions for a speedy and healthy midweek meal, or break out of your recipe rut by ordering some of the commercial meal kits available – boxed ingredients delivered straight to your home, and lots of tasty and healthy options to choose from. And if the kids are getting bigger or left home, you can start to experiment more in the kitchen to suit your own taste and try new things: you will be falling back in love with cooking in no time!
  • Get organised, make lists and plan. Being prepared and getting in more healthy foods makes it easier to stick to a balanced diet and means you’re less likely to eat out or order a takeaway. Staying on track can be as simple as planning meals in advance and heading to the supermarket with a shopping list for the week ahead or doing a food shop online – if it’s not on the list, it’s not coming home!
  • Try new things in your everyday diet. Can you introduce more cholesterol lowering foods to your daily routine? If you have high cholesterol, eating Benecol® foods with added plant stanols, as part of a balanced and varied diet can lower LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol more than healthy eating alone.*  So why not simply switch out your regular spread or yogurt with a Benecol® product?
  • Do muscle strengthening activities. As well as cardio exercise, adults should also do muscle strengthening activities at least twice a week to minimise loss of muscle (and bone) and stay strong [18] – but any is better than none.  You can use weights and resistance bands at the gym, but using your own body weight by doing exercises like squats, push-ups or sit-ups is also effective. So too is gardening, such as digging and shovelling, and carrying heavy food shopping.
  • Snack wisely. As tempting as it may be to reach for the chocolate biscuits or a bag of crisps, do try to stick to healthy snacks. Prep carrot batons or celery sticks ahead to dip into salsa or tzatziki; have a couple of oatcakes with smashed avocado or rye crispbreads with peanut butter; or if you are out and about – opt for small handful of unsalted nuts or seeds.
  • Try out Meatless Mondays. Have at least one meat-free day per week to cut down on your intake of red and processed meat, and the saturated fat and salt that comes with them. Going for fish, beans and pulses is a good way to increase your protein and also creates opportunities to try new recipes. Give our lemon crusted or Cajun salmon a whirl – both of which are quick, tasty and easy to make.
  • Invest in small plates, bowls and glasses. Your meal will look bigger on a smaller plate and you will still feel as though you’ve had a good plateful, but your calorie intake will be greatly less – a simple trick to keep your portion sizes down.
  • Focus on the food. Pay attention to each mouthful and avoid distractions – that means putting the TV, computer, smartphones and newspapers away while you’re eating. Concentrating on your meal will help you better identify when you’re starting to feel full, and help you resist a second helping or dessert.
  • Get help. There is lots of support available to help you lose weight and live more heart healthily. Speak to your GP or practice nurse, and check out what slimming clubs are available locally.

Top tip – It’s time to get your free NHS health check at your GP surgery.  This will include a blood test to check your cholesterol levels, as well other simple tests like taking your blood pressure and measuring your height and weight. Your results will show if you’re at higher risk of developing CHD, and other health problems – and whether you need to make diet and lifestyle changes or take medication to protect your heart.

high cholesterol myths

In your 50s… Love your heart

You may well have more time on your hands now you’re in your 50s, and so your fifth decade is a golden opportunity to take a step back and look at your diet and lifestyle to find more ways in which you could be heart healthy. It may be something as simple as improving the quality of fats that you eat or walking to the shops instead of taking the bus.  Even a few small changes in your daily routine could help you achieve great results in both the short and long term.

Your heart health challenge…

The risk of CHD goes up with age for everyone, but for women, the need to be heart aware after the menopause is even more important. The female hormone oestrogen offers women some protection against CHD in their pre-menopausal years, but once a woman’s periods stop (around the age of 51 years), they have the same chance of developing CHD as men [21]. Plus, the lack of oestrogen makes it even harder to keep any extra pounds gained off the tummy. Additionally, women having a waist measurement above 80cm (or 31.5 ins) can have raised cholesterol levels [22]. It’s understandable then that elevated total cholesterol levels are highest among UK women aged 55 to 64 – that’s about ten years later than the peak in men [14].

Here are some heart happy ideas for your 50s:

  • Champion plant-based foods (27,28). Fruit and veg, beans and pulses (legumes), wholegrain carbs, nuts and seeds are all friends with your heart and your waistline – try aiming for 30 different plant foods every week (27,28).  Compared to protein from animal sources, plant-based proteins tend to be higher in fibre and lower in saturated fat and salt – a combo that is heart healthy and can help you feel full and satisfied (29). So add chickpeas, lentils, borlotti beans and kidney beans to soups, stews, curries and risottos or mash them up to make dips and spreads. And enjoy quinoa and buckwheat in salads and even chia seeds in your smoothies and porridge.
  • Instead of adding salt to your food when cooking, add herbs and spices. You will be amazed how quickly your taste buds acclimatize to less salty food, and they even count towards your 30 plant foods a week challenge. A win-win situation!
  • Add more fibre to your diet. Fibre is essential for keeping our digestive systems (and your gut microbes that live there!) and hearts happy [6]. So choose higher fibre or wholegrain starchy foods wherever possible, such as wholewheat pasta, wholegrain breakfast cereals, skin on potatoes and brown rice [23].
  • Don’t shop when you’re hungry. If you don’t buy unhealthy snacks, they won’t be there to tempt you.
  • Look after your weight. Generally speaking, the average woman needs 2,000 calories a day, and the average man needs roughly 2,500. However, be careful about ‘calorie creep’, as it’s all too easy to exceed your personal calorie requirements – resulting in unwanted weight gain. Why not try sticking to the 400-600-600 rule – that’s 400 calories at breakfast, and 600 for lunch and dinner – leaving a little extra calories for some nutritious snacks.
  • Watch your alcohol intake. National statistics reveal those aged 55 to 64 years drink more than the recommended weekly limit of 14 units than any other age group [14]. Alcohol raises the cholesterol in your blood and is high in calories – so is bad news for your heart and waistline, too [24]. Try downsizing your wine glasses or opt for lower strength or alcohol free wine or beer, to help you cut down.
  • Don’t skimp now on omega-3 fatty acids. If you’re not already eating the recommended one portion (140g cooked weight) of oily fish once a week, you should consider doing so now to help keep your heart (and joints) healthy. Start experimenting with oil-rich fish. Most of us tend to stick to salmon, but why not try trout, mackerel, sardines or kippers for a change? [6]
  • Get your oats. The soluble fibre in oats is especially good for cholesterol. Get your 3 grams of beta-glucan fill by having two to three portions of oat-rich foods and barley (also a good source) throughout your day. Go for porridge for breakfast, add barley to your soup for lunch, then have a few oatcakes as an afternoon snack. [6]

 Top tip – Remember, risk factors for CHD become more common in your 50s, so however youthful you feel, it’s still vital to keep an eye on your weight – and get your cholesterol levels and your blood pressure checked by your doctor at least once every five years – and more often, if you’re at an increased risk.

Your 60s and beyond…Eat more of the right things

Yes, you’re in your 60s, 70s or 80s, but no, it’s never too late to start working on healthier habits. Even changing as little as one small daily habit could give you better health tomorrow, and in your retirement years to come!

Your heart health challenge…

As we get older, we have a higher risk of developing a number of health problems including CHD.  It’s usually a combination of things that add up and make us more susceptible such as our age, being overweight and not being physically active.  When it comes to blood pressure, more men and women aged 65 years and over have higher readings than any other age bracket [14] – a pressure of 140/90 is considered higher than ideal.  And like blood cholesterol, a raised blood pressure rarely causes any signs – so knowing your numbers and taking steps to do something about them – if they’re already high, plays an even more important role in your heart health.

Here are some heart happy ideas for your 60s and beyond:

  • Be more active to stay active. If you want to be fit, flexible and strong in your older years and maintain independence, you should aim to be active for at least 30 minutes on most days. Every minute counts and the more minutes you do, the better you’ll feel! But you need to do it in a way that is practical, achievable, and that works for you. Speak to your GP for advice on exercising safely [18].
  • Eat regular meals. Three nutritious meals a day, plus a couple of healthy snacks, should mean you’re getting all of the nutrients needed for good health and the right amount of calories, too – making it easier for you to maintain a healthy weight. That said, if you get full quickly, smaller, more frequent meals might be helpful?
  • Take in more fibre. Sadly most of us eat less fibre than the 30g daily that’s recommended, but average UK daily intakes plummet to just 17.5g after the age of 65 [25]. Where possible, cut back on refined carbs and choose wholegrain, wholemeal and brown versions instead.
  • Eat a rainbow of colours. Different coloured fruits and vegetables come in all kinds of flavours, textures, shapes and sizes, and each contain a unique set of vitamins and minerals – so it’s important to eat a rainbow variety each day. Why not get a veggie box delivered right to your door – the fresh and seasonal produce could inspire you to add more unusual varieties to your diet and make the most of what mother nature has to offer?
  • Slash the salt. Salt is linked to high blood pressure, and put simply we’re eating too much [26]. Adults should eat no more than 6g a day – that’s about one teaspoon. So if you want to improve your diet and make lower salt choices start reading food labels, as most (75%) of our salt intake is already in the foods we buy. And remember, that all salt – rock, sea, pink of Himalayan is the same.
  • Train your brain. Do something each day that makes you smile and keeps your brain active, like going for a walk with a neighbour, having fun with the grandchildren, playing a game of scramble or bridge with friends, learning a language, joining clubs or even taking part in local activities like choirs, book clubs or keep fit classes.
  • Tweak every meal to make it healthier. Can you add some berries to your yogurt, a handful of nuts or dried fruits to your morning porridge, a portion (or two or three) of steam vegetables to your main meal or a scattering of apple slices to your salads to make them more nutritious, and look and taste more appealing. As they say, variety is the spice of life, and this is true for what we eat as well!
  • Make your calories count. As you get older, you can find your appetite dwindles, so choose nutritionally dense foods whenever you can to ensure you’re getting all of the essential vitamins and minerals you need for good health. This will leave less room for fatty, salty or sugary snacks and drinks that are high in calories, without giving you any nutrients.

Top tip – While age is no barrier to doing all you want in your 60s and beyond, your heart health could be. So it’s vital to continue with your NHS health check-ups up to the age of 74 years of age – and pay attention to your body, as you get older. If you notice anything different, or something just doesn’t feel right and you’re worried, be sure to talk to your GP or a nurse.

* Plant stanol ester has been shown to lower cholesterol. High cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease. A daily intake of 1.5-2.4g plant stanols lowers cholesterol by 7-10% in 2 to 3 weeks.