Lifestyle risk factors that can be prevented and/or changed
Lifetime smoking roughly doubles your risk of developing heart disease. The chemicals in tobacco get into the bloodstream from the lungs and damage the arteries and other parts of the body. Your risk of having a stroke, and developing other diseases such as lung cancer are also increased. Stopping smoking is often the single most effective thing that a person can do to reduce their health risk. The increased risk falls rapidly after stopping smoking (although it takes a few years before the excess risk reduces completely). If you smoke and are having difficulty in stopping, then see your practice nurse for help and advice.
Lack of physical activity – a sedentary lifestyle
People who are physically active have a lower risk of developing cardiovascular diseases compared to inactive people. To gain health benefits you should do at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, on most days (at least five days per week).
Obesity and overweight
On average, if you are obese and reduce your weight by 10%, your chance of dying at any given age is reduced by about 20%. This is mainly because you are less likely to develop cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, or certain cancers. The increased health risk of obesity is most marked when the excess fat is mainly in the abdomen rather than on the hips and thighs. As a rule, a waist measurement of 102 cm or above for men (92 cm for Asian men) and 88 cm or above for women (78 cm for Asian women) is a significant health risk.
Eating healthily helps to control obesity, and lower your cholesterol level. Both of these help to reduce your health risk. Also, there is some evidence that eating oily fish (herring, sardines, mackerel, salmon, kippers, pilchards, fresh tuna, etc) helps to protect against heart disease. It is probably the ‘omega-3 fatty acids’ in the fish oil that helps to reduce the build-up of atheroma. Also, fruit and vegetables, as well as being low in fat, also contain ‘antioxidants’ and vitamins which may help to prevent atheroma building up. Briefly, a healthy diet means:
Adults should eat no more than 6 g salt a day. This is about a teaspoon of salt. A research study followed up people for several years and looked at their salt intake. Those who cut back from about 10 g per day to about 7 g per day or less, on average, reduced their risk of developing a cardiovascular disease by about a quarter. So, even a modest reduction in intake can make quite a big difference. The current average daily intake of salt in the UK is 9 g per day. About three quarters of the salt we eat is already in the foods we buy. By simply checking food labels and choosing foods with lower salt options, it can make a big difference. A tip: sodium is usually listed on the food label. Multiplying the sodium content by 2.5 will give the salt content. Also, try not to add salt to food at the table.
You need to cut back if you are drinking too much. Drinking a small or moderate amount of alcohol probably reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases (38% compared with teetotallers in one study). That is, 1-2 units per day – which is up to 14 units per week. Drinking more than 15 units per week does not reduce the risk, and drinking more than the recommended upper limits can be harmful. One unit is in about half a pint of normal strength beer, or two thirds of a small glass of wine, or one small pub measure of spirits.
High blood pressure
You should have your blood pressure checked at least every 3-5 years. High blood pressure usually causes no symptoms, so you will not know if it is high unless you have it checked. However, over the years, high blood pressure may do some damage to the arteries and put a strain on your heart. In some cases, high blood pressure can be lowered by: losing some weight if you are overweight, regular physical activity, and eating healthily as described above. Medication may be advised if your blood pressure remains high.
Cholesterol and other lipids
In general, the higher the blood cholesterol level, the greater the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. The risk that a high cholesterol level poses is greater if you also have other risk factors such as diabetes or high blood pressure. As a rule, no matter what your cholesterol level is, then lowering the level reduces your risk. This is why people at high risk of developing a cardiovascular disease are offered medication to lower their cholesterol level. A high blood level of triglyceride, another type of lipid (fat), also increases the health risk.
Diabetes and kidney disease
The increased risk that these conditions pose to developing cardiovascular diseases can be modified. For example, good control of blood sugar levels in people with diabetes reduces the risk. Good control of blood pressure in people with diabetes and kidney diseases reduces the risk.