Busting myths about cardiovascular disease

There are several risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD), but the good news is that in many cases it can be prevented.

Whatever your situation, you can reduce the impact of your risk factors and improve your chances of preventing CVD by adopting healthy lifestyle habits and getting advice from healthcare professionals.

This is even more important for people who don’t see themselves as at risk. The reality is that this condition affects people young and old, and with very different lives. Here are three examples of how people from varied backgrounds could be at risk.

Raj, 31: “I’m too young to suffer heart disease”

Busting myths about cardiovasular diseaseResearch shows that CVD, which can lead to a heart attack, is more common in South Asian people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But Raj is unaware of this fact and that South Asian men in the UK have a 40 per cent higher risk of dying from heart disease than other men of the same age.

Raj has no idea what his cholesterol level is. But a low HDL (good cholesterol) level is more common in South Asian people. This is possibly linked to genetics, although this is not yet fully understood. Certain cultural factors, such as the cooking oils and ingredients in the home-cooked food Raj still enjoys, may be linked, although again this has not been confirmed.

For South Asian men like Raj, research shows that fat around the waist is more risky than the same amount of fat in a white person. Raj goes to the gym regularly, which is good news, as maintaining a healthy weight is even more important for him. The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence recommends keeping waist circumference to less than 90cms (35 inches) to reduce the risk of complications linked to weight.

Helen, 49: “Heart disease affects men not women”

Women like Helen often know everything about their family’s health, but sometimes overlook their own.

This is despite the fact that 900,000 women in the UK are living with heart disease, the main cause of heart attacks. As a result some 68,000 UK women are treated in hospital for a heart attack each year, an average of 186 women a day or eight every hour.

Helen doesn’t know the symptoms of a heart attack, so may delay getting medical help, putting her life and future recovery at risk.

The most common signs of a heart attack are chest pain, pain or discomfort in the arms, neck, jaw, back or stomach, sweating, feeling light-headed, shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting.

Like 60 per cent of women in England, Helen is overweight, which increases her risk of heart disease. Losing weight will reduce the risk and Helen’s shape matters as well as her weight. Being apple-shaped, carrying excess weight around your waist, puts her at higher risk of heart disease than being pear shaped, having excess weight around the hips, so she should aim for a waistline of less than 80cms (31.5 inches).

Doctors used to think that using hormone replacement therapy or HRT, which Helen is taking for menopausal symptoms, also protected women against heart disease. But research now suggests this is not the case.

Rachel, 28: “What about a baby’s heart health?”

Busting myths about cardiovasular diseaseDoctors don’t know what causes most congenital heart defects, which develop in the womb, although some are linked with genetic syndromes. For example, many children with Down’s syndrome have heart defects.

But congenital heart defects do appear to run in families. If Rachel already had a child with a congenital heart defect, there are tests that estimate the likelihood of her next child being born with one. Some problems can also be picked up in pregnancy, most often by an ultrasound scan at 20 weeks.

However, environmental factors can play a role in congenital heart defects and in some cases women like Rachel can take steps to reduce this risk.

Once Rachel is pregnant, certain medical conditions, such as the viral disease rubella, can cause problems in the baby’s heart development. In early pregnancy a midwife will test Rachel to see if she’s had rubella and arrange a vaccination if not. For women who are diagnosed with diabetes before pregnancy, carefully controlling their condition, before and during pregnancy, will reduce the risk of heart defects.

Taking certain medicines during pregnancy increases the risk of congenital heart defects. These include the acne medication isotretinoin, lithium, which is used to treat bipolar depression, and anti-seizure medications containing valproate. So Rachel should give her GP a complete list of prescribed medicines before trying for a baby.

It’s also important to avoid alcohol and smoking during pregnancy, which further increase the risk of congenital heart defects.