Three myths about heart disease and five tips to prevent it

Luke James
Medical Director Bupa Global and UK Insurance
29 September 2017

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This article is more than three years old. It reflects the best available evidence at the time of publication.

Your heart is an amazing organ. It works non-stop for your entire life – yet so many of us take it for granted. Cardiovascular disease (a catch-all term for diseases of your heart and circulation) kills on average 435 people every day in the UK. But it can be prevented.

To do that, it's vital to understand what heart disease is, debunk some common myths and learn how to reduce your risk.

These are the top three misconceptions I hear on a daily basis.

Myth 1: Heart disease only affects men

People often think cardiovascular disease (CVD) mainly affects men. But heart disease doesn’t discriminate – it kills the same amount of women as it does men, although men tend to develop CVD earlier in life. There’s a misconception that women are ‘protected’ from CVD because high levels of oestrogen in the female body protect them from many heart problems until menopause.

The same number of men and women are living with CVD in the UK today – 3.5 million men and 3.5 million women.

For both men and women, smoking, weight gain, high cholesterol and low activity levels throughout life contribute to the risk. I’d recommend everyone assesses their risk, but anyone around the age of 45 really will benefit from getting their blood pressure, cholesterol and other risk factors checked.

Myth 2: Heart disease is a hereditary condition

It’s common for people to think their risk of heart disease is low because there’s no history of it running in the family. And while hereditary factors do play their part, lifestyle habits also play a huge role in developing a cardiovascular condition.

Looking at your lifestyle is a great place to start understanding how you could make changes to benefit your heart health. Regularly checking cholesterol levels and blood pressure are also great ways to keep on top of your heart health, whether you have a family history or not.

Myth 3: Heart disease only affects older people

More than one in every four people who die from cardiovascular disease every day are under the age of 75. With heart disease being the UK’s single biggest killer, heart health isn’t something we should be putting off until we’re older. The population is growing and we’re living longer – the seven million people living with heart disease in the UK today could rise in the future because of this.

With a better understanding of heart conditions, it’s clear that how we live our lives each day can affect our heart health. These are my key tips for keeping your ticker in good condition.

Tip 1: Eat a heart-healthy diet

More than one in every four people in the UK are obese. This is a key risk factor for developing CVD, so getting to a healthy weight is really important. On top of this, the more weight you carry, the higher your cholesterol can be. This can further increase the risk of cardiovascular problems. It’s helpful to know that there are two types of cholesterol – the good and the bad – and your diet can affect your levels of both types.

A healthy diet including beans and lentils, oats, garlic, onions, oily fish, avocado and olive oil can increase the levels of good cholesterol (HDL) in your body and reduce your risk of cardiovascular problems. By switching to foods that are high in protein, choosing colourful fruit and vegetables and eating high-fibre food, you can also help lower ‘bad’ cholesterol and improve heart health.

Tip 2: Stop smoking

Over eight million adults smoke in the UK. And it’s thought up to 20,000 deaths from CVD are caused by smoking every year. Smoking raises the risk of CVD in a number of ways, but the key one is that it causes your arteries to narrow (through a build up of fatty deposits). This can lead to angina, heart attack or stroke.

If you don’t smoke – don’t ever be tempted to start. If you smoke, the best thing to do is to go and see your GP and find a method of quitting that suits you.

Tip 3: Get a health check

There’s a national screening programme to check people aged 40 to 74 for their risk of cardiovascular disease. You’ll have this done every five years. If you’re in this age bracket and haven’t had a check, I urge you to have one. As part of the appointment, you’ll be offered support with any changes to your lifestyle that you want to make. The check will look at your age, family history and whether you smoke. It also includes measuring your BMI (body mass index), blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

You can also get a check at a health clinic.

Tip 4: Reduce stress

There’s been a lot of discussion around the relationship between heart disease and stress, and it can play a part. Someone who is stressed might drink more, over eat or start smoking to ease the tension.

Stress can also increase your blood pressure, so it’s a good idea to find ways to reduce and manage your stress levels. Try some things out to see what works for you; it could be practising mindfulness, getting out into the fresh air and doing some light exercise.

Tip 5: Get enough exercise

Not getting enough exercise is a key risk factor for developing CVD. People who don’t exercise have double the risk of getting coronary heart disease and three times the chance of having a stroke.

Guidelines advise we do 30 minutes of exercise a day – this can be split into bursts of 10 minutes, so when you put it like that, it’s not hard to achieve. Walking is a great way to start if you’ve not exercised for a while; just make sure you can feel your heart beating faster, your breathing is faster and you feel warm. Get some tips here.

Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health and a view of any future health risks. You'll receive a personal lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a happier, healthier you.

Luke James
Dr Luke James
Medical Director Bupa Global and UK Insurance

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