Heart disease is one of the biggest causes of premature deaths and ill health up to 75 years of age in the UK population. Although the most up to date statistics show the numbers of deaths from heart disease has been decreasing over recent years, it was still the cause of 15% of male and 7% of female deaths (in under 75's) in 2014.
What causes heart disease?
There are lots of different heart problems and conditions, which collectively are known as heart disease, two of the most sudden and life-threatening of these conditions are a heart attack and stroke.
- A heart attack is the sudden loss of oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle.
- Stroke is the sudden loss of oxygen-rich blood to the brain muscle.
Most heart attacks and strokes are caused by a process called atherosclerosis. This is the narrowing of our arteries, which supply our heart and brain muscles with oxygen-rich blood. Over time, fatty materials gradually build up on the walls of the arteries, if a piece of this material breaks off it can cause a blood clot (blockage).
If this happens in our coronary artery, it can cut off the supply of oxygen-rich blood to our heart muscle, causing a heart attack. If it happens in an artery supplying our brain with oxygen-rich blood, this is a stroke.Common risk factors
There are certain risk factors that will increase our chances of developing atherosclerosis and heart disease, some of which obviously we are unable to change, such as age, gender, a family history of heart disease or our ethnic background.
But there are many factors which we are able to do something about, which will make a big difference to our heart and overall health.
- Being overweight or obese
- Lack of exercise
- Type II Diabetes
- High blood pressure
- High LDL cholesterol levels
Evidence from many studies has shown that the best ways to reduce the risk factors above and keep not just our hearts healthy, but improve our overall health, are to:
Try to reduce and stop smoking:
If you are a smoker, the British heart foundation rates giving up smoking as "the single best thing you can do for your heart health. Smokers are nearly twice as likely to have a heart attack than those who have never smoked".
Aim for a more balanced diet:
A more healthy, balanced diet will help stop us gaining too much weight and lose some if we need to (in a sustainable, long-term way) It will also lower cholesterol levels and reduce our risks of developing high blood pressure and diabetes.
- This includes a diet high in different kinds of vegetables and fruit (aim for at least five 80g portions each day)
- Lots of starchy foods like pasta, potatoes, bread and rice (if possible choose wholegrain types)
- Some meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy protein sources
- Some milk and dairy foods
- Aim to limit foods that are high in sugar, fat, and salt as much as possible
- Using herbs and spices for seasoning when cooking instead of salt.
- Grilling foods more and frying less, or if frying, using less oil and draining well.
- Try to reduce alcohol consumption to recommended levels of no more than 14 units per week
Increase our activity levels:
The recommended activity levels are 150 minutes (2 1/2 hours) of moderate level exercise each week, but this doesn't have to mean going for a run or joining a gym. It can be a brisk 20 min walk, a cycle, a swim, dancing, yoga, or any other activity we enjoy that raises the heart rate and has us breathing more heavily.
Remember, all our activity counts, and we can easily add more throughout the day.
- Getting off the bus a few stops early or parking further away and walking the rest.
- Using the stairs instead of the lift or escalator
- Doing the gardening
- Going for a walk with family or friends
- Walking the dog (or a friends)
- Walking the kids to or from school
- Doing the hoovering and other housework
Certain ethnic groups in the UK may be at greater risk of developing heart disease, this can be due to many reasons, such as cultural, lifestyle and genetic factors.
People in the UK from a South Asian background such as Indian, Bangladeshi or Pakistani, may have an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease which could lead to a heart attack, over 65-year-olds in these groups are also at greater risk of having a stroke.
Those from an African Caribbean background may have an increased risk of developing high blood pressure, which if left unchecked can lead to an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease or having a stroke.
Whether we are thinking about ways we can reduce the chances of developing heart disease or are currently already living with the condition. Even making a few of the changes mentioned above will help to reduce or stop altogether many of the risk factors involved, reducing our likelihood of developing heart disease or the risk of it recurring or getting any worse.