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What causes heart disease and am I at risk?

Everyone knows the classic sign of a heart attack – pain in the chest – but knowing whether you’re at risk of heart disease can be a little more tricky, let alone how to beat it.

What is heart disease?

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the biggest killer in the UK and 2.7million Brits are currently living with CHD. The condition means your arteries become narrowed by a gradual build-up of fatty material, a process called atherosclerosis. Over time, your arteries may become so narrow they cannot deliver enough blood to your heart. The pain you can feel as a result is called angina.

If a fatty deposit breaks off, it may cause a blood clot to form that could block your coronary artery and cut off blood supply to your heart muscle, triggering a heart attack. Fewer people today die from heart attacks, but they might be left with heart failure; the heart muscles are so weak, they cannot pump blood efficiently round the body.

Treatment for heart disease is often surgery or drugs. You may have a stent (a small tube) inserted to widen narrowed arteries, or bypass surgery where a blood vessel from your arm, leg or chest is used to bypass a narrowed section of artery. You may also be prescribed drugs to lower your blood pressure or cholesterol, both of which raise your risk of heart disease.

What are the causes of heart disease?

  • Family history There is no single gene that increases your risk of CHD, but if your father or brother was diagnosed under 55, or your mother or sister was diagnosed under 65, this will raise your risk. But this could also be due to unhealthy habits, such as smoking or poor diet, we pick up from our parents.
  • Getting older The risk factors for heart disease in men start rising after the age of 40, while women lose the protective effects of oestrogen after the menopause, increasing their risk.
  • High blood pressure Some heart health experts say this is the number one risk factor for CHD. Nearly one in three Brits have high blood pressure (hypertension) – the higher your blood pressure, the higher your risk.
  • High cholesterol Eating saturated animal fats are the most likely cause of high cholesterol and it is known that high cholesterol can lead to heart disease.
  • Unhealthy lifestyle Lifestyle is key – being overweight, taking too little exercise, drinking excessively, eating too much salt and not enough fruit and vegetables can all raise your risk of heart disease. Being overweight also puts you at higher risk of diabetes, which in turn increases your risk of CHD, heart attack and stroke.
  • Being male Being a man means you’re more at risk as you’re more likely to have multiple risk factors, but heart disease is just as dangerous for women – three times as many women will die from heart disease than breast cancer. This means they may leave it later to seek help and may not recognise the symptoms of an attack; women suffer more from severe fatigue, shortness of breath, pain in the arm, throat and upper back – not just the chest – and nausea.

Reduce your risk of heart disease

There is plenty you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease, from losing weight to getting married! Staying active, quitting smoking and eating the right foods can all help keep your heart healthy.

Discover which foods can help protect you from CHD, and start including them in your diet – today.

Want more ways to stay heart healthy? We’ve got lots more advice on improving your heart and circulation.

Shop our Vitamins & Supplements range.

This article has been adapted from longer features appearing in Healthy, the Holland & Barrett magazine. Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies

Heart Health