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Looking after your heart

Key points

  • Heart disease kills more people in the UK than any other disease.
  • Coronary heart disease is the most common heart condition and can lead to angina, heart attacks and heart failure.
  • Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes can increase your risk of heart disease.
  • Exercising regularly is one of the best ways to help maintain a healthy heart.
  • You can reduce your risk of heart disease by stopping smoking, doing regular exercise, eating a healthy diet and drinking alcohol sensibly.

Video: preventing coronary heart disease

Your heart is designed to last a lifetime, and making sure you follow a healthy lifestyle with the right diet and regular exercise can help keep it healthy throughout your life.

Animation: how the heart works

About heart disease

The term heart disease (or cardiovascular disease) covers a number of conditions that affect your heart. The most common problem is coronary heart disease, also known as ischaemic heart disease.

In the UK, heart disease kills more people – both men and women – than any other disease.

There are some risk factors for heart disease that you can’t do anything about, such as your age. As you get older your arteries naturally become less elastic, increasing the risk of high blood pressure (hypertension). This in turn increases your risk of heart disease. You're also more at risk if you have a family history of coronary heart disease, diabetes or high cholesterol (hypercholesterolaemia). See our frequently asked questions for more information.

Men are more likely than women to get heart disease, and certain ethnic groups are more at risk than others. For example, you’re more likely to develop coronary heart disease if you’re from South Asia (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) and you’re at an increased risk of stroke and high blood pressure if you’re of African-Caribbean origin.

However, there are numerous risk factors that you can control. Making some changes to your lifestyle can help to reduce your risk of heart disease.

Coronary heart disease

Coronary heart disease is caused by fatty deposits building up in your coronary arteries – the vessels that supply blood to your heart. This narrows them, making it harder for blood to reach your heart.

If you have coronary heart disease, you may have:

  • angina – chest pain when you’re physically active as a result of poor blood supply to your heart muscle
  • a heart attack – when a coronary artery becomes completely blocked, part of your heart muscle is starved of oxygen and can be permanently damaged
  • heart failure – this is when your heart can’t pump blood around your body properly, which can lead to breathlessness and swelling in your legs

Illustration showing a coronary artery affected by arthrosclerosis

Stopping smoking

Stopping smoking not only reduces your risk of developing heart disease, but also reduces the risk of many other serious illnesses, such as lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Passive smoking (inhaling smoke from nearby smokers) may also increase your risk of heart disease. Try to reduce your exposure to this.

Stopping smoking is the most important thing you can do to help your health, and whatever your age, it's never too late to stop. As soon as you do, your health will improve. Within one year of giving up, your risk of a heart attack is halved. After 15 years, your heart attack risk will have fallen to the same level as someone who has never smoked.

Quitting smoking isn't easy and you may need to try several times before you succeed. You can refer yourself to your local NHS Stop Smoking Service, or your GP or practice nurse can refer you.

Physical activity

Taking regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for your heart. You can exercise at different intensities. Moderate means your breathing is faster, your heart rate is increased and you feel warmer. At this level of activity, your heart, lungs and muscles are being stimulated and this goes towards making you fitter. Vigorous intensity activity means that you will feel short of breath and your heart rate will be much faster than usual. You will probably find it difficult to talk or hold a conversation.

Aim to do some physical activity every day. The recommended healthy level of physical activity for adults is 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate exercise over a week in bouts of 10 minutes or more. You can do this by carrying out 30 minutes on at least five days each week. Alternatively, you can do 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity over a week, or a mixture of moderate and vigorous intensity exercise.

Exercising doesn’t have to mean going to the gym but can be things you build into your everyday routine such as walking as much as possible, taking the stairs instead of the lift, or getting off the bus one stop early. It’s important that you try to spend as little time as possible sitting or lying and being inactive. See our frequently asked questions for more information.

There are very few medical reasons not to be physically active, but check with your GP before starting to exercise if you're in doubt. The risk of doing yourself any harm is low if you start gently. Build up how often you do the activity before you increase how hard you work during a session. Sudden vigorous exercise, if you’re not used to it, can put your heart under too much strain and can be dangerous.

Healthy eating

A healthy diet can help prevent heart disease. Aim to eat a balanced diet, basing your meals on wholegrain, starchy foods such as pasta, rice or potatoes, and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. At least five portions a day is recommended. Include some dairy and non-dairy sources of protein, for example lean meat, fish, eggs, cheese or pulses and limit the amount of salt, sugar and fat in your diet. 

Choose healthy cooking methods (grill, bake or steam rather than frying), trim fat off meat and remove skin from chicken. Try to eat one portion of oily fish, for example mackerel or sardines, a week. This can help to lower the cholesterol in your blood. Reducing the amount of salt you eat will help to lower your blood pressure.

Maintaining a healthy weight

Being overweight increases your risk of developing heart disease. You’re especially at risk if you have extra weight around your abdomen (tummy) and waist rather than on your bottom and thighs. Your GP will be able to advise if you need to lose excess weight. If you do, you will probably need to follow an exercise programme, as well as eating healthily.

Reducing your cholesterol levels

Reducing the level of cholesterol in your blood can help to prevent heart disease. Some cholesterol is made by your body and some comes from the food you eat so try to cut down on the amount of fat in your diet. However, even if you already eat healthily, you may still have a high cholesterol level, particularly if other members of your family do. You may need to take medicines to reduce high cholesterol depending on what is causing it. See our frequently asked questions for more information.

Moderate drinking

Drinking alcohol within the daily recommended amount (two to three units of alcohol a day for women and three to four units for men) may help to reduce the risk of heart disease if you’re over 45. If you drink more than this, any beneficial effect of alcohol is outweighed by the risk of damage to your heart, leading to high blood pressure, or weakening or enlargement of your heart muscle meaning it can’t pump blood effectively.

If you don’t drink alcohol, don’t start as there are other ways to protect yourself from heart disease, such as exercising regularly and stopping smoking. If you have heart disease or a heart condition, talk to your GP about whether it’s safe for you to drink alcohol.

Try to have one or two alcohol-free days each week. This will prevent your body from getting used to having alcohol every day. However, even if you haven't had any alcohol during the week, it isn’t safe to drink more than the daily recommended number of units in one go at the weekend. Binge drinking is generally accepted to be drinking more than double the daily recommended amount at one time. Binge drinking is likely to be considerably worse for your health than drinking less but more often.

Think about the number of units you drink – some drinks may be stronger than you realise. The labels of many bottled and canned drinks will tell you the number of units they contain.

Diabetes

Diabetes (type 1 or type 2) puts you at a greatly increased risk of heart disease. You're also more likely to have high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure, especially if you have type 2 diabetes.

If you have diabetes, it's important to control your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol level to try to minimise your risk of heart disease.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure increases your risk of heart disease but you may not have any symptoms, so you may not know you have it. About a third of adults have high blood pressure. If you’re 40 or over, get your blood pressure checked by your GP or a nurse. He or she will be able to tell you if you need to take steps to lower it and how to do this.

 

Reviewed by Polly Kerr, Bupa Health Information Team, August 2013.

Find out more about our health editors

 

For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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