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The truth about heart disease

Samantha Wild
Clinical Lead for Women's Health and Bupa GP
09 August 2021
Next review due August 2024

In the UK there are about 7.6 million people living with cardiovascular disease (the term for diseases that affect your heart and circulation). Here I’ll answer some common questions about cardiovascular disease (CVD) and the things we can all do to reduce our risk of developing it. Try taking the quiz at the end to see how much you’ve learned!


Does cardiovascular disease only affect older men?

No. Both men and women can develop CVD at any age. People often think that only men are affected, but this is not true. In fact, women are more likely to die of coronary heart disease than of breast cancer. Your risk of developing CVD does increase as you get older, but younger people can develop it too. Over 35,000 people under the age of 75 die from CVD each year. So, it’s important for everybody to look after their heart.

Does cardiovascular disease run in families?

Having a close relative with CVD means you have a higher risk of developing it too. But you can also have CVD even if nobody else in your family has it. It’s also important to know that having other people in your family with CVD doesn’t mean that you’ll definitely develop it as well. There are still lots of things you can do to keep yourself as healthy as possible and reduce your risk.

What’s the best diet to keep my heart healthy?

One way to reduce your risk of developing CVD is to eat a healthy balanced diet. Eating this way may help you to reduce the amount of ‘bad’ cholesterol in your blood and increase the amount of ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol. It can also help to lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of diabetes.

More fibre

Include plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans and pulses in your diet as well as wholegrains such as oats and wholemeal pasta.

More healthy fats

Include foods such as nuts, seeds and avocadoes in your diet. Aim to eat two portions of oily fish a week if you can. Use vegetable oils or plant-based spreads instead of butter or ghee.

Less saturated and trans fat

Reduce the amount of processed meat (such as bacon and sausages) and full-fat diary you eat. Avoid hard fats such as butter and cheese. Only eat fatty foods like cakes, biscuits and pastry occasionally.

Less salt

Reduce the amount of pre-packaged and takeaway foods you eat if you can. Avoid eating lots of salty snacks such as crisps and nuts. Try to make sauces from scratch instead of buying jars and packets.

Less sugar

Reduce the number of biscuits, cakes, sweets and sugary drinks you have.

Less alcohol

If you drink alcohol, limit the amount you drink to a maximum of 14 units per week. You should spread your drinking over three or more days, and make sure that you also have two alcohol free days a week.

What type of exercise is best for heart health?

When it comes to keeping your heart healthy, any exercise is better than none. Being more physically active can reduce your risk of developing CVD by over a third.

You don’t need to do very vigorous exercise to see the benefits. Start slowly if you don’t currently do much physical activity and aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. Make sure you can feel that your heart is beating faster, your breathing is quicker, and you feel warm. The most important thing is to find something you enjoy and that you can do regularly.

Does smoking effect your heart?

Yes. Smoking raises your risk of developing CVD. This is because the chemicals in cigarettes can damage your arteries. This can lead to a heart attack or stroke. It’s thought at least 15,000 deaths from CVD are caused by smoking every year. If you smoke, the best thing to do is to go and see your GP and find a method of quitting that suits you.

Can stress affect my heart health?

Yes. This is because when we’re stressed we tend to do things which aren’t good for our heart. This might be exercising less, eating a less healthy diet, drinking more alcohol, or smoking.

Try to find other ways to cope when you’re feeling stressed. Do some exercise or find something you enjoy like watching a film or having a bath. You might find it helpful to try yoga, meditation or mindfulness. If you need support with your mental health speak to your GP.

How can I check my heart health?

There are lots of ways that your doctor can help you understand your risk of developing CVD. They can look at your age, family and medical history, any medications you take and whether you smoke. They can also measure your BMI (body mass index), blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

In some parts of the UK, you’ll be offered a health check from your doctor every five years once you turn 40. If you’re younger than 40 or you live somewhere where these check-ups aren’t offered, you can still speak to a doctor about your cardiovascular health. They can support any changes you want to make to reduce your risk.

Take the quiz

How much do you know about cardiovascular disease? Take our myth busting quiz to find out.


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Samantha Wild
Dr Samantha Wild
Clinical Lead for Women's Health and Bupa GP

    • BHF Statistics Factsheet – UK. British Heart Foundation. www.bhf.org.uk, published July 2021
    • Health Survey for England 2017 - Cardiovascular diseases. NHS England. www.healthsurvey.hscic.gov.uk, published 4 December 2018
    • Women and heart disease. British Heart Foundation. www.bhf.org.uk, accessed 07 September 2021
    • Family history. British Heart Foundation. www.bhf.org.uk, accessed 07 September 2021
    • UK Chief Medical Officers' Physical Activity Guidelines. Department of Health and Social Care. www.gov.uk, published 7 September 2019
    • Smoking. British Heart Foundation. www.bhf.org.uk, accessed 07 September 2021
    • Stress. British Heart Foundation. www.bhf.org.uk, accessed 07 September 2021
    • Physical assessment. British Heart Foundation. www.bhf.org.uk, accessed 07 September 2021
    • How do I get an NHS Health Check? NHS. www.nhs.uk, last reviewed 28 November 2019
    • Keep Well. Health Scotland. www.healthscotland.com, accessed 07 September 2021

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