Around seven million people in the UK are living with cardiovascular disease, say the British Heart Foundation, with 152,465 people dying from the disease each year. While lifestyle choices can prove a great indication of susceptibility to heart disease, in some cases, it can be caused by genetics, or as a result of other underlying medical conditions.
Heart valve disease
When one or more of the valves in the heart get damaged or diseased, this is called heart valve disease. Damaged or diseased arteries can restrict essential blood flow through the heart causing symptoms of breathlessness, fatigue and swelling of the ankles and feet. According to the British Heart Foundation, there are numerous known causes of heart valve disease, including cardiomyopathy, rheumatic fever, congenital heart disease and simply ageing. Luckily, most valve conditions can be treated—if needed—using medication. In severe circumstances, heart valve surgery may be necessary to replace the damaged valves with either an artificial heart valve or a bioprosthesis.
What is cardiomyopathy?
Cardiomyopathy is an umbrella term for diseases of the heart. This condition causes the walls of the heart chambers to become thick, rigid or enlarged; in rare instances, diseased heart tissue may be replaced with scar tissue. Unfortunately, there is no cure at present for cardiomyopathy, but there are medical treatments available to help control the symptoms and prevent further complications. Medications including beta-blockers, diuretics, anticoagulants and those used to treat high blood pressure and heart failure may be prescribed. In some cases, cardiomyopathy can be hereditary. When it is not, however, medical experts generally advise following a healthy diet, reducing alcohol intake, stopping smoking and making sure any underlying medical condition, such as diabetes, is being managed appropriately. It is important to speak with your doctor about the right method of treatment for you should you be diagnosed with the disease.
Taking preventative measures when it comes to your heart’s health is imperative to reduce the risk of heart failure and disease.
High blood pressure
Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure places strain on the heart which can weaken it and lead to heart disease over time. While the condition affects some seven million people in the UK, it presents with little symptoms and often goes undetected until it’s too late. Your doctor can measure your blood pressure, which should be below 130/80mmHg. Lifestyle changes such as increasing exercise and eating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet may help to reduce blood pressure to healthy levels. Medication such as statins may be necessary in the event that lifestyle changes are not effective.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that builds up in the arteries and can restrict blood flow. When cholesterol levels become dangerous, it can lead to heart failure and even stroke. Foods high in saturated fats including processed meats, dairy or cakes can increase the risk of high cholesterol. According to the NHS, cholesterol levels in a healthy adult should be five millimoles per litre of blood; this can be measured by your doctor via a blood sample. You can control your cholesterol levels by cutting down on foods high in saturated fats and replacing them with ‘healthy’—or unsaturated—fats which can be found in avocados, nuts and seeds.
Smoking is a major risk factor in many health conditions including some cancers. It is also highly indicated in cardiovascular disease. Smokers are twice as likely to have a heart attack than non-smokers. Shockingly, around 20,000 deaths caused by heart disease can be linked to smoking as the primary cause. The chemicals in cigarettes can severely damage the lining of the arteries which can lead to a buildup of atheroma—a fatty, sticky substance—that narrows the arteries. Carbon monoxide levels in cigarettes also reduces vital oxygen levels in the bloodstream. This means that the heart pumps blood harder and faster in an attempt to deliver enough of the vital life source around the body.
Experts agree that diet is inextricably linked to heart health. Being conscious of what you put into your body is the first step towards promoting a strong, healthy ticker. Include an abundance of green, leafy vegetables, which are high in heart-loving iron, calcium, fibre and vitamins C and K, in your day-to-day diet. Juicy berries including blueberries, strawberries and blackberries are extremely high in phytonutrients and soluble fibre—all of which play a vital role in heart health. Omega 3 has long been touted the panacea of heart health. According to the Mayo Clinic, these fatty acids may decrease triglycerides (fat), reduce high blood pressure and decrease the risk of major heart-related conditions like stroke and heart failure. Omega 3-rich foods include fatty fish like salmon, tuna and herring and nuts and seeds such as walnuts or chia seeds.
Move to the beat
It may seem that every media outlet reporting on heart health bangs the same drum in terms of exercise, but there is scientific evidence to back up its efficacy. Not only does it strengthen the muscles of the legs and arms, it also strengthens the heart muscle, making it more efficient at pumping blood—and therefore vital nutrients—around the body. Current government recommendations advise 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week (or 30 minutes, five times a week). Take up jogging, swimming or dancing to not only increase heart health, but boost your mood and keep weight at a healthy level.
Am I having a heart attack?
If you exhibit these symptoms, then call 999 immediately:
- Discomfort in the chest
- Pain in the right or left arm
- Nausea or shortness of breath
Did you know?
1 person dies every 8 minutes as a result of coronary heart disease
Source: The British Heart Foundation
The healthcare costs related to heart circulatory diseases each year
Source: The British Heart Foundation
This article was originally published in Live to 100 with Dr Hilary Jones. Read the digital edition, here.