Love your heart

Someone in the UK has a heart attack every two minutes. One in three of those people will die within 24 hours.

Heart disease facts

  • Heart disease is the biggest cause of death in England
  • 2.7m people in the UK have heart disease
  • People of South Asian origin are in a high-risk group

There are nearly 2.7 million people living with coronary heart disease (CHD) in the UK. It's the UK's biggest killer, causing around 82,000 deaths each year.

About one in five men and one in eight women die from the disease. The risk of people of South Asian origin developing CHD is 50% higher than the national average.

But things could be different. Most premature deaths from cardiovascular disease, including CHD, – that is, among people aged less than 75 – are preventable.

What is CHD?

CHD happens when the blood supply to the heart muscle is reduced because the heart’s arteries become too narrow or, worse still, are blocked.

This is caused by a gradual build-up of porridge-like fatty deposits inside the coronary arteries, which interfere with the normal flow of blood to the heart.

However, there are lots of things you can do to keep your heart healthy, whatever your age, gender or ethnic background.

If you're in a high-risk category because of a family history of CHD or your ethnic background, you can still reduce your chance of developing CHD.

“By eating well, stopping smoking and being active, you can significantly reduce your risk of developing CHD,” says Denise Armstrong of Heart Research UK.

Eat well

Your diet can make a big difference to the health of your heart. Around a third of the food you eat should be fruit and vegetables. Another third should be starchy foods, such as bread, cereals, pasta, rice and potatoes.

“Wholegrain and wholemeal varieties are best because of their fibre content,” says Armstrong.

The remaining third should include a moderate amount of dairy food, meat, fish and vegetarian alternatives, and small amounts of food containing fat and sugar.

To make your diet a healthy heart diet, you can make the following two small but significant changes:

Cut down on fat

Reduce your total fat intake, especially saturated fat and trans fats. These lead to increased cholesterol and are therefore bad for your heart.

Foods high in saturated fat include: butter, hard cheese, fatty meat, biscuits, cakes, cream, lard, suet, ghee, coconut oil and palm oil.

“Replace foods that are high in saturated fat with low-fat or fat-free ones. Include small amounts of unsaturated fats, which are good for cholesterol levels,” says Armstrong.

Moderate amounts of unsaturated fats – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated – are good for your cholesterol levels.

Foods high in unsaturated fat include: olive oil, rapeseed oil, sunflower oil, nuts and seeds (such as walnuts, pine nuts and sesame seeds), and some margarines and spreads.

Three steps to a healthy heart

  • Don’t smoke
  • Be active
  • Eat healthily

Go easy on the salt

The body needs small amounts of salt. But eating too much can cause high blood pressure, which is linked to heart disease.

The daily recommendation for adults is less than six grams, which is about one teaspoon. That’s easily reached if you're eating processed or ready-made foods. At least 75% of the salt in our diet comes from processed food such as bread, cheese, sausages, cereals and biscuits.

“To reduce the amount of salt you eat, don't add salt at the dinner table. Get into the habit of checking food labels when you’re shopping,” says Armstrong.

Cut down on processed foods. Note that manufacturers often list sodium on the food label instead of salt, and 1g of sodium is the equivalent of 2.5g of salt. A food is high in salt if it has more than 1.5g salt or 0.6g sodium per 100g.

Lifestyle

Two lifestyle changes can also improve the health of your heart: increasing your activity levels and stopping smoking. 

Get moving

An active lifestyle can significantly reduce your chance of developing heart disease.

“Past activity levels don’t count. It’s how active you are now that matters,” says Armstrong.

Regular exercise can lower your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, weight and your risk of developing heart disease.

“Not only is physical activity good for the body, it’s good for the mind as well,” says Armstrong. “It’s a great mood booster.”

Activities can range from a fast walk to more vigorous exercise, such as running and dancing.

Adults should do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week.

“One way of achieving this target is to do 30 minutes of activity on five days a week,” says Armstrong.

“For it to count, you need to be active enough to make you feel warm and slightly out of breath.
Inactive people will achieve benefits very quickly from when they resume activity."

Find out more about the health benefits of physical activity and get ideas to get more active in Health and fitness.

Quit smoking

If you're a smoker, stopping is the biggest step you can take to reduce your risk of developing heart disease.

Smokers are nearly twice as likely to have a heart attack as people who have never smoked. But within a year of stopping smoking, your risk of heart attack falls to about half that of a smoker.

Breathing in someone else’s smoke is also harmful. Non-smokers who live with smokers have a greater risk of heart disease than those who don’t.

The chemicals in cigarettes, such as nicotine, tar and carbon monoxide, are particularly harmful to your heart as they can:

  • damage the lining of your arteries, leading to a build-up of fatty deposits
  • increase blood pressure and heart rate, making your heart work harder
  • reduce the amount of oxygen that the blood can carry to the heart and body
  • make your blood more likely to clot

Visit the Smokefree website or ask your GP for help with quitting. You're four times as likely to stop smoking for good using NHS stop smoking services.

Page last reviewed: 28/07/2013

Next review due: 28/07/2015

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Media last reviewed: 11/03/2013

Next review due: 11/03/2015