Coronary disease and stroke are among the most common causes of death in the UK. But the risk of suffering from both is believed to be up to 90% modifiable through a mix of lifestyle and environmental factors.
For heart disease some of the main risk factors are being overweight, having high cholesterol and/or blood pressure, smoking and being diabetic. We asked the experts what you can really do to improve your odds.
Related: read our blood pressure monitor reviews to see which ones you can trust to help you keep an eye on your numbers.
1. Follow a Mediterranean diet
A healthy diet is a varied, mainly plant-based diet. But the diet with the best evidence base supporting it is what’s known as the Mediterranean diet. First promoted in the 1950s, population studies since then have continued to support it.
Dietitian Catherine Collins explains: ‘the Mediterranean diet involves basing your diet around wholegrains, vegetables and fruits, monounsaturated fats, beans, nuts, legumes, seeds, herbs and spices. It includes fish or seafood at least twice a week (preferably oily fish) and moderate portions of poultry, eggs, cheese and yoghurt. Red and processed meats, and sweets are eaten occasionally.’
A small amount of alcohol is OK – around one to two units a day with a couple of alcohol-free days a week. This style of eating moderates the health effects of saturated fats, such as butter, with monounsaturated oils such as olive or rapeseed oil.
This diet won’t necessarily help you lose weight but it does help moderate the effects of obesity as it improves the sensitivity of body cells to insulin and improves blood sugar control, as well as being beneficial for blood pressure and cholesterol.
2. Slash your salt intake
One of the key causes of raised blood pressure is too much sodium in our diet.
To bring about significant change in your blood pressure, Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chairman of Blood Pressure UK recommends being strict about reducing your salt intake. Lots of people think they are safe from over consuming salt because they don’t add any to their food, but don’t factor in the high salt content of food such as processed meat, sliced bread, cheese, soy sauce and condiments.
Herbs, spices and black pepper are useful taste enhancers that can reduce the need to use salt, says Catherine Collins. Plus they have other anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits for your health, too.
Fruits and vegetables also provide potassium and magnesium that helps counter the effect of sodium on blood pressure.
3. Get moving…
We all know we should do it but exercise can bring about up to a 35% risk reduction of coronary heart disease and stroke according to the NHS. Exercise raises your good (HDL) cholesterol and lowers your bad, lowers your blood pressure and can help with weight loss.
Government guidelines say that we should be doing 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week, along with strength exercises on two or more days a week that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms). Or you can get in your quota with 75 vigorous minutes or a mix of the two – one vigorous minute equates to two moderate minutes. Exercise can be broken down into small chunks – 10 minutes or so – as long as you clock up the total recommended time.
Moderate activity is classed as any exercise that makes you feel warm, makes your heart beat faster but is still at a level where you are able to hold a conversation. Brisk walking, doubles tennis or water aerobics could all count.
The key to being active is finding something that you enjoy. Expert in public health, Professor Stuart Biddle, says that selling exercise just on disease prevention is not effective. People exercise for psychosocial reasons, because it makes them feel good. This could mean you enjoy the exercise while you are doing it, or it could mean you get a sense of satisfaction or feel less stressed shortly afterwards.
Need a helping hand monitoring your activity and heart rate? See our round up of the best fitness watches and activity trackers for 2018.
4. …and keep moving
Even if you are doing your 150 minutes, make sure you aren’t too sedentary the rest of the time. Sitting down too much is believed to slow our metabolism, putting us at increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, some types of cancer and obesity.
Stand up and take an ‘active break’ (getting up and moving around rather than just standing up) from sitting every 30 minutes.
5. Lose weight if you need to
Keeping to a healthy weight can help prevent high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.
Losing just over a stone in weight could take 10 units off your systolic (the top number) blood-pressure reading. Every reduction of 10mm Hg from your systolic blood pressure can reduce your risk of a major cardiovascular event by 20%.
6. Give up smoking
Smokers are almost twice as likely to have a heart attack as people who have never smoked.
Fortunately, Which? members are a wise bunch. In a recent survey of 1,728 members only 5% smoked or had smoked in the past two years (Which? Connect survey November 2017).
If you need help quitting, speak to your GP, pharmacist or visit the NHS Stop Smoking website for more tips.