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You may think heart - or cardiovascular - disease is something that only happens to middle-aged, overweight people with an unhealthy lifestyle, but actually, this isn't the case. Cardiovascular disease (CVD), which includes heart disease, stroke and heart attack, is the UK's leading cause of death, killing 73,000 people each year. So why aren't we talking about it?
One big reason is that most people think it won't happen to them. Until the warning signs appear, many of us go on with our bad habits without considering the invisible effects on our bodies.
The risk factors for CVD include smoking, lack of exercise, and being overweight. If you have an existing condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, you may also be at increased risk. Age, gender, ethnicity and family history can also contribute to the possibility of developing heart disease. Drinking alcohol to excess and poor stress management can also trigger symptoms.
Smoking exposes the body to carbon monoxide, depriving the blood of oxygen and leading the heart to beat faster to try and make up for this. It also damages the arterial lining, leading to a build up of fatty material that narrows the arteries. All this raises blood pressure and puts strain on the heart. In addition, a smoker's blood is more likely to clot, increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke.
Obesity or being overweight can also contribute to heart disease. Being overweight increases your chances of developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes, all of which are risk factors for CVD.
High blood pressure puts extra strain on your heart and arteries, leaving you vulnerable to heart attack or stroke. Because there are rarely any symptoms, 7 million people in the UK are currently living undiagnosed with high blood pressure. The only way to know your blood pressure is to have it measured by a doctor or nurse, and it is particularly important to do this if you are over 40.
Exercising for 30-60 minutes a day can strengthen the heart, lower blood pressure and can help you to manage stress, while boosting your mood and self-esteem in the process.
Eating less saturated fat, cholesterol and salt and more fruits and vegetables can provide plenty of nutritional benefits, being high in antioxidant properties that may support heart health. Meanwhile, foods high in saturated fat can raise cholesterol and this puts you more at risk of heart problems.
Stress, although not a direct cause of CVD, may contribute to your overall risk. This is because some people cope with stress by drinking too much alcohol, smoking or overeating, all of which are triggers for heart disease. Furthermore, if you have heart disease and are experiencing a lot of anxiety or stress, this can exacerbate your symptoms.