Heart health

Every three minutes, someone in the UK has a heart attack. Yet for many of us, making a few lifestyle changes, like to what we eat and how much we move, could reduce our risk.

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Learn about heart health

In this guide to heart health, we explore the risk factors we face in daily life and the things we can do to reduce these. If you're aware of what puts you at risk, you can learn how to prevent heart disease and maintain a healthy heart.

  • What is a healthy heart?

    A healthy heart is one that happily beats around 100,000 times a day to pump about 23,000 litres of blood around your body. Your blood delivers the oxygen and nutrients you need while taking away your waste products.
    An unhealthy heart is where the walls of the arteries leading to your heart become clogged with fatty deposits. This means they're narrower than they should be, and mean your heart strains to deliver your blood efficiently and effectively.
  • Your diet and your heart

    What you eat affects your heart.

    Saturated fat
    Saturated fat is in foods like processed meat, hard cheese and cream. Too much saturated fat can increase your cholesterol and clog your arteries. 
    Too much salt causes high blood pressure, which will damage your artery walls over time and make them more likely to become clogged with fats. The guideline daily allowance for adults is 6g of salt, but most people in the UK eat about 8g.
    Eating too many sugary foods means you’re more likely to become overweight. This puts you at greater risk of heart disease as well as type 2 diabetes.
    Smoking damages the lining of your arteries and makes the platelets in your blood stickier. This increases the likelihood of you having a blood clot or stroke, and almost doubles your risk of a heart attack. 
    Too much alcohol increases your blood pressure, which weakens your artery walls. It also disrupts your heart rhythm, which can lead to a stroke or sudden death. Plus it weakens your heart, which could cause you to have heart failure.
  • Your lifestyle and your heart

    Sitting for hours on end stops your body from burning sugars. These then get stored as fat, which puts you at a greater risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

    If you’re working full time, you probably work through lunch more often than you should. Many UK workers spend up to 10 hours a day sitting down. Even if you're not in work, there's a good chance you may be sitting for longer than is healthy.

    Life can be full of stressful moments. If you don’t learn how to manage them, you can increase your risk of heart disease. The latest research has identified stress as a direct risk factor for heart disease, and if you’re stressed over a long period of time you could put your health at risk. Stress that you are not managing can cause you to reach for a pack of cigarettes, drink more alcohol than you should or snack on unhealthy food. These are all habits which can increase your risk of heart disease.

  • Your weight and your heart

    If you're overweight, your heart has to work harder to pump blood around your body, and this puts a strain on your heart muscles and on the walls of your arteries. The research is clear, maintaining a healthy weight cuts your risk of heart disease. 

    Your body mass index (BMI) is a measurement of your body fat based on your height and weight, it can tell you if you're a healthy weight. And medical professionals can use your BMI to assess how at risk you are of some diseases. If your BMI is 25 or above (23 or above if you’re of South Asian, African-Caribbean, Chinese or Middle Eastern descent), you may have an increased risk of developing heart disease. 

    Conditions such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol all contribute to your risk of heart disease, and all are made worse by being overweight. 
    Your shape, as well as your weight, can tell you if you’re at risk. According to the British Heart Foundation, you have a higher risk of heart disease if your waist is a certain size.
    • If you’re a woman and your waist is 32 inches (80cm) or more.
    • If you’re a man and your waist is 37 inches (94cm) or more. 
    • If you’re a man of South Asian or African-Caribbean background and your waist is 35.5 inches (90cm) or more.
  • Your family history and your heart

    If your siblings or parents were affected by heart disease you're more likely to be affected by it too. Your shared genes could pass on a tendency for high blood pressure, high cholesterol or a direct tendency for heart disease.

    Whilst we might think our lifestyle habits are choices that we make, they're heavily influenced by the people around us. So if parents smoke or drink a lot of alcohol they could pass on those habits.

    Whilst you can't change your increased genetic risk of heart disease, there's no question that lifestyle changes and check ups and treatment by your GP can help.

  • Your ethnicity and your heart

    There are some risk factors that mean we need to be even more vigilant.

    If you’re of African-Caribbean background, you're at greater risk of high blood pressure or of suffering a stroke. You also have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, which can lead to heart disease. 
    If you have South Asian heritage (Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani), you have a higher likelihood of having high blood pressure or of suffering a heart attack. 

Next steps

Making small changes to your diet and lifestyle can make a big difference to your heart health. See our action plan for changes you can start making today.