This factsheet is for people who are concerned about heart problems and would like information about how to look after their heart.
The 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 your heart healthy throughout your life.
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The term heart disease covers a number of conditions affecting your heart. The most common problem is coronary heart disease (CHD), also known as ischaemic (pronounced ‘i-scheme-ik’) 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 do nothing about, such as your age. As you get older your arteries naturally become less elastic, increasing the risk of high blood pressure. You're also more at risk if you have a family history of CHD, diabetes or high cholesterol (hypercholesterolaemia).
Men are more likely than women to get heart disease, and certain ethnic groups are more at risk than others, including people from South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka).
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.
CHD 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 CHD you may have:
Taking regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for your heart. You can perform 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 and lungs are being stimulated and this goes towards making you fitter. Vigorous intensity activity means that your breathing will be much stronger and your heart rate will increase rapidly. You will find it difficult to hold a conversation.
You should aim to do some physical activity every day. The recommended healthy level of physical activity 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.
It’s important that you include at least two weekly activities to build up muscle strength, such as exercising with weights. Try to spend as little time as possible being inactive.
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 (the frequency) before you increase how hard you work during a session (the intensity). Sudden vigorous exercise, if you’re not used to it, can put your heart under too much strain and can be dangerous.
Giving up smoking not only reduces your risk of developing heart disease, but also reduces the risk of many other serious illnesses, like cancer and emphysema.
Whatever your age, it's never too late to stop smoking. As soon as you do, your health will improve. Within one year of giving up, your risk of a heart attack is halved. Fifteen years after giving up, your heart attack risk falls to the same level as someone who has never smoked.
Giving up smoking isn't easy and you may need to try several times before you succeed. Passive smoking (inhaling smoke from nearby smokers) may also increase your risk of heart disease – you should try to prevent your exposure to this.
Moderate consumption of alcohol (between one and two units of alcohol a day) may help to reduce the risk of ischaemic heart disease in men over the age of 40 and women after the menopause. But drinking too much can damage your heart, causing high blood pressure, damage to your heart muscle and abnormal heart rhythms. If you have heart disease or a heart condition, you should talk to your cardiologist or GP about drinking alcohol.
A safe limit of alcohol for men is no more than three to four units of alcohol in any one day, and for women, no more than two to three units in a day.
Having one or two alcohol-free days each week is beneficial to your health. Binge drinking is not. If you haven't had any alcohol during the week, don't assume it's safe to drink 21 units (for men) or 14 units (for women) at the weekend.
The list below shows the number of units of alcohol in various drinks.
Try to think about the number of units you drink. Some drinks may be stronger than you think. The labels of many bottled and canned drinks will tell you the number of units they contain.
A healthy diet can help prevent heart disease. Aim for a balanced diet, basing your meals on starchy foods with some dairy and non-dairy sources of protein, and plenty of fruit and vegetables. Limit the amount of salt, sugar and fat in your diet.
Choose healthy cooking methods (grill, bake, steam or microwave instead of frying), trim fat off meat and remove skin from chicken. Eating more fish may help to reduce your intake of saturated fat.
Being overweight increases your chances of developing heart disease. Your GP will be able to advise if you need to lose excess weight. To lose excess weight you will probably need to follow an exercise programme, as well as eating healthily.
Reducing cholesterol levels in your blood can help you prevent heart disease. Eat a healthy, low-fat diet. Even if you already eat healthily, you may still have high cholesterol levels, particularly if other members of your family have high levels. As a last resort, you can use medicines to reduce high cholesterol and slow or even partially reverse the progress of heart disease.
Diabetes (type 1 or type 2) puts you at high risk of heart disease. You're also more likely to have high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. Diabetes can also increase the effect of other risk factors for heart disease, such as smoking and being overweight.
If you have diabetes, it's important to control your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, to minimise your risk of heart disease.
High blood pressure (hypertension) increases your risk of heart disease. High blood pressure usually has no symptoms, so you may not know you have it. If you’re 40 or over, you should get your blood pressure checked by your GP or a nurse. He or she will be able to tell you how often it should be measured.
Produced by Bupa's Health Information Team, September 2011.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see Common questions.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
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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