February is the British Heart Foundation’s Heart Month – so there’s never been a better time to take a moment to top up your own heart health knowledge. Here are five key things everybody should keep in mind:
Generally speaking, all forms of cardiovascular disease are more common in older age groups, mostly the over-65s – but that doesn’t mean younger people can’t be affected too. Although rare, heart attacks and sudden cardiac arrest can sometimes occur in younger people, including those who are physically fit (remember when Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch back in 2012?). Other health conditions, such as diabetes or lupus, might mean people’s hearts are affected at a younger age too and sometimes people are born with heart conditions, such as a hole in the heart or valve abnormalities. If you’re concerned about any symptoms that might possibly relate to your heart – like breathlessness, chest pain and palpitations – the best thing to do is get them checked, whatever your age.
We all know of people who’ve been struck by illness despite always looking after themselves, while others who’ve broken all the ‘rules’ reach a ripe old age with no real problems – so it’s tempting to think: ‘Well what’s the point trying to be healthy?’ But look at the population overall, and the wealth of research backing it up, and it’s undeniable: lifestyle factors DO play a major role in heart health. Not smoking, or taking steps to quit, is one of the single biggest things you can do to help protect your heart (smoking is linked to around 20,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease each year in the UK, according to BHF figures), while maintaining a healthy weight, getting enough regular physical activity (even if it’s just a daily walk!), eating a balanced diet with plenty of antioxidant and mineral-rich veg and fruit and omega-packed oily fish, and ensuring your alcohol intake is within the recommended guidelines can also make a big difference.
Equally, genes and family history are also significant factors when it comes to heart health. If heart disease tends to ‘run in your family’, for example, your risk of developing it in the future might be increased. Ethnicity can also play a part: people of South Asian descent tend to have a higher risk of heart disease, while people of African Caribbean background tend to be more prone to high blood pressure. There are also heart-related conditions that can be directly inherited, such as familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH), a genetic condition, believed to affect around one in every 250 people, that causes higher than normal cholesterol levels from birth. Certain types of cardiomyopathy, where the heart muscles become thickened or stretched, can also be inherited.
Whether it’s niggling symptoms that are causing concern, or lifestyle factors that could potentially lead to problems down the line, it is always a good idea to tackle things early before they become serious and follow the golden rule: prevention is better than cure. With things like high cholesterol and high blood pressure, often there are no physical ‘signs’ you might be affected until they start taking a significant toll. In fact, it’s believed around 7 million people in the UK have undiagnosed high blood pressure, and many only find out AFTER suffering a heart attack or stroke. Yet these could often be prevented, if warning signs were detected early and steps taking to help keep them under control – so don’t put off having that chat with your doctor and keeping an eye on your health.
Continuing this point – if you do have high blood pressure, sometimes something as simple as reducing excess salt in your diet is all it takes to bring your numbers back into a healthy range. For others, medications can be extremely effective and significantly reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Beyond this, it’s worth remembering that while heart conditions can be a frightening and distressing topic, there is a lot that can be done, including a range of cardiac diagnostic tests to help diagnose and rule out problems, as well as treatments such as pacemakers and medication or ablation therapy to treat common conditions like atrial fibrillation.