According to a research, more than seven million people in the UK (excluding many that live in other parts of the world) live with cardiovascular disease – and the dangers rise significantly for men at age 55 and at 65 for women.
The warning signs that a heart attack is on its way can be very much subtle than people realize.
Senior cardiac nurse Chris Allen, of the British Heart Foundation, warns that even tiredness can be a sign of poor heart health.
Chris, 30, said: “People don’t realize that if you’re more tired than usual it can be heart disease.
“If your heart isn’t working properly, it struggles to pump oxygen around the body. That makes you feel more lethargic.”
He emphasizes we need to be aware of our normal energy levels, so we can spot changes.
“If you can usually do an hour’s gardening no problem, and suddenly it exhausts you, go to your GP – it could be a sign of a heart complaint.
“So many people ignore these simple signs and put it down to something else, but it is important to get checked.”
Chris warns that the signs of a heart attack can also be very different for men and women.
He explained: “Men tend to report feeling a crushing pain or tightness in the chest.
“For women, the symptoms are more vague – it can feel like indigestion, discomfort, or an ache that can travel to the neck or jaw.”
Chris said: “The doctor will give you a risk score for heart disease, based on family history, health and lifestyle. If you’re at risk, they may advise lifestyle changes.
“It’s best to think about this sooner rather than later, especially if someone in your family had heart disease.”
Here, Chris gives his top tips on how you can help cut your chances of heart problems.
Focus on healthy food, not ‘health foods’
How you eat is very important when it comes to heart health – and a Mediterranean diet is best.
That means focusing on meals that are rich in fish and vegetables, using olive or rapeseed oils.
Saturated fats should be limited – they can lead to high cholesterol, one of the main causes of heart disease.
Even if your cholesterol is normal, you should still allow yourself no more than 20g of saturated fat a day.
Coconut-based products, such as coconut oil or milk are very popular – but they are extremely high in saturated fats.
They shouldn’t be seen as a health food and should be limited – as should other foods high in saturated fats such as fried food, butter or cheese.
Retrain your taste buds to shake the salt habit
As well as high cholesterol, another major cause of heart disease is high blood pressure.
And one of the biggest things that leads to high blood pressure is too much salt.
We do need some salt, but this occurs naturally in food – there is no need to add it in.
Ready meals, fast food and takeaways all contain added salt and should definitely be limited.
And there is no reason to add salt to our food on the plate.
Your taste buds adjust to the taste and you end up feeling as though you need more salt – food without it starts to taste bland.
But if we retrain our taste buds not to need it, things will start to taste a lot better. It just takes time and is a readjustment.
Are you more thirsty than normal?
Being thirsty more than you are usually – or needing to pee during the night – can be a sign of oncoming Type 2 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes massively increases the risk of developing heart disease, so noticing it early can make a huge difference.
Head to your GP if you have these symptoms and the doctor will advise you what to do next.
Social smoking is as bad as full-time smoking
Most people know that smoking can lead to heart disease or a heart attack. But what they are less aware of is that smoking even just one or two cigarettes a week increases risk of heart disease astronomically.
For heart health, it makes no difference whether you smoke one or two socially, or if you smoke 40-a-day – the risks are still just as great.
Smoking more increases your risk of lung cancer, but smoking at all makes you much more likely to develop heart disease.
Binge-drinking can affect heart rhythm
Cutting down on alcohol is a great way to fight off heart disease. Most people are aware of that.
But a less well-known factor is that binge drinking can increase risk of abnormal heart rhythms.
Some people are prone to this – and drinking can trigger it.
Sometimes they are unpleasant but won’t be dangerous – but at other times abnormal rhythms can lead to a cardiac arrest.
The heart works on an electrical circuit – and alcohol can mess with this.
It is also important to recognise the amount of sugar and calories in alcohol, all of which contribute to poor heart health.
As well as volume of alcohol intake, I would also advise you avoid mixing it with energy drinks – as these are also likely to exacerbate abnormal heart rhythms.
If you are concerned about your heart health, there are lots of online groups that offer information and support.
The British Heart Foundation is part of a health social network called HealthUnlocked. You can find great advice and forums there.
It’s also worth joining local exercise groups – or weight loss groups if weight is something you are struggling with.
People don’t pay this the attention it deserves. If your relatives have suffered heart attacks or have heart disease, you are far more likely to develop it too.
If you have family members who got it earlier in life, go and have a chat with your GP, so they are aware.
If they think your risks are higher, they may be more proactive with things such as high blood pressure or cholesterol.
Stress and sleep have no direct link, but beware…
Sleeping well and reducing stress is great for overall health. But there is no direct link between stress and heart disease, or poor sleep and heart disease.
What I would say is that both of those things can lead to bad lifestyle choices – such as eating the wrong foods, smoking and drinking more or not exercising.
These are the things that will damage the heart.
The best advice is often the most obvious
Our best advice for a healthy heart has all been scientifically proven – yet still too many of us continue to ignore it.
Naturally, keep an eye on your blood pressure and cholesterol, as those are key signs.
But the simple rules are: Eat healthily. Exercise regularly – for at least 150 minutes a week.
Don’t smoke. Drink alcohol in moderation. And watch your weight.