Heart disease kills more people in the UK than any other single disease. Yet, many of these deaths could be prevented through early diagnosis and simple diet and lifestyle changes.
To protect yourself from heart disease, it is important to understand a little about the condition, to know your risk level, seek the necessary tests from your doctor and make healthy lifestyle changes.
WHAT IS HEART DISEASE?
The term ‘heart disease’ refers to several types of heart condition. The most common is coronary artery disease (CAD), which can cause heart attack, angina, heart failure and arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat).
CAD occurs when a substance called plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to the heart (coronary arteries). Plaque is made up of cholesterol deposits. When this happens, your arteries can narrow over time. This process is called atherosclerosis.
Plaque buildup can cause angina, the most common symptom of CAD. This condition causes chest pain or discomfort because the heart doesn’t get enough blood.
Over time, the heart can be weakened and this may lead to heart failure, a serious condition where the heart can’t pump blood the way that it should. An irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, can also develop.
For some people, the first sign of CAD is a heart attack. A heart attack occurs when plaque completely blocks an artery carrying blood to the heart. It can also happen if a plaque deposit breaks off and clots a coronary artery.
HOW IS CAD DIAGNOSED?
Doctors can determine a patient’s risk for CAD by checking blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose, and by finding out more about the family history of heart disease. If you’re at high risk or already have symptoms, your doctor can perform several tests to diagnose CAD including—
Electrocardiogram (ECG) – a simple test to measure the electrical activity and rhythm of the heart.
Echocardiogram – an ultrasound test to create a picture of the heart.
Exercise stress test – measures heart rate while you exercise on a treadmill. This helps to determine how well your heart works when it has to pump blood faster
Chest x-ray – creates a picture of the heart to check for signs of disease or damage
Cardiac catheterization – checks for blocked arteries by threading a thin, flexible tube through an artery in the groin, arm or neck to reach the coronary artery.
Coronary angiogram – monitors blockage and flow of blood through the heart, using dyes and x-ray
If you have CAD, there are steps you can take to lower your risk of having a heart attack or the heart disease getting worse. Your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes such as eating a healthier diet, exercising, and not smoking.
Medications may also be necessary. Medicines can treat CAD risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, an irregular heartbeat, and low blood flow. In some cases, more advanced treatments and surgical procedures can help restore blood flow to the heart.
RISK FACTORS FOR CAD
People with a family history of heart disease and those with an unhealthy lifestyle – eating a poor diet, smoking, not exercising and drinking too much alcohol – are most at risk of developing CAD.
As a major cause of CAD is the build up of cholesterol in the arteries, regular cholesterol checks and a diet to help control cholesterol are among the most important steps you can take to protect yourself from CAD.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by the liver or consumed in certain foods. It is needed by the body, and the liver makes enough for the body’s needs. When there is too much cholesterol in the body—because of diet and the rate at which the cholesterol is processed—it is deposited in arteries, including those of the heart. This can lead to narrowing of the arteries, heart disease, and other complications.
Some cholesterol is termed “good,” and some “bad.” A higher level of high–density lipoprotein cholesterol, or HDL, is considered “good,” and gives some protection against heart disease. Higher levels of low–density lipoprotein, or LDL, are considered “bad” and can lead to heart disease.
A lipoprotein profile can be done to measure several different forms of cholesterol, as well as triglycerides (another kind of fat) in the blood.
A healthy diet can help increase good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol. Avoid saturated fats such as butter, lard, ghee, palm oil and coconut oil. These can increase the amount of cholesterol in your blood, which can increase the risk of developing coronary heart disease.
Also avoid industrially produced trans-fats, which can be found in processed foods such as biscuits, cakes, pastries and deep fried foods.
Eat small amounts of monounsaturated fats, including olive oil, rapeseed oil, some nuts and seeds. Monounsaturated fats can help to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, as do polyunsaturated fats which also provide essential fatty acids. Soya, vegetable and sunflower oil are high in polyunsaturated fats.
Omega-3 fat is a particular type of polyunsaturated fat found in oily fish that can help protect your heart. Try to eat at least one portion of oily fish a week.
High blood pressure
High blood pressure is another major risk factor for heart disease. It is a condition where the pressure of the blood in the arteries is too high. There are often no symptoms to signal high blood pressure, so it is worth getting your blood pressure checked regularly.
Lowering blood pressure by changes in lifestyle or by medication can lower the risk of heart disease and heart attack.
Eating too much salt is linked to high blood pressure. Adults should keep salt intake down to less than 2.5g of sodium (that’s 6g of salt, or about one teaspoon) a day.
Exercise is also important as it helps control weight, reduces blood pressure and cholesterol levels and improves mental health.
Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity at least five times a week – you can build up to this gradually. Moderate activity should make you warm and breathe more heavily.
Your doctor can give you more detailed dietary and lifestyle advice to help you to protect yourself from heart disease.
SYMPTOMS OF HEART ATTACK
As fast action is required when dealing with someone suffering a heart attack, it is worth being able to recognise the symptoms of a heart attack.
The five major symptoms of a heart attack are—
• Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, or back.
• Feeling weak, light-headed, or faint.
• Chest pain or discomfort.
• Pain or discomfort in arms or shoulder.
• Shortness of breath.
If you think that you or someone you know is having a heart attack, you should call 112 for an ambulance immediately.
A person’s chances of surviving a heart attack are increased if emergency treatment is given as soon as possible.