If you smoke and eat too much – it’s time to stop

Preventing cardiovascular disease begins with healthy habits, as Azadeh Khalilizadeh discovers

Minimising risk and early detection are the keys to saving lives and halting the global epidemic of cardiovascular disease.

Smoking is the leading cause of cardiovascular disease (CVD), with research showing smokers having a 60 per cent greater chance of dying from the disease than non-smokers.

“A lot of young people think smoking won’t do them any harm if they quit early,” says Ian Franklin, vascular surgeon and chairman of the UK charity, the Circulation Foundation. “But smoking can lead to irreversible damage that can surface later on. I have encountered people in their 50s and 60s, who are dying because of damage caused by smoking in their youth.”

The risk is higher with older age and in men, but with ever-increasing waistlines, cardiovascular health is fast becoming an issue in people.

“More young people are becoming less physically active and weighing more which is leading to a diabetes epidemic,” says British Heart Foundation senior cardiac nurse Maureen Talbot. “This increases the risk of other cardiovascular diseases, such as having a heart attack or a stroke.”

Poverty and stress, although not direct causes of cardiovascular disease, may indirectly trigger unhealthy habits

Ethnicity plays a role. South Asian people living in the UK are one-and-a-half times more likely to die from coronary heart disease before the age of 75 than the rest of the UK population.

People with a family history of high cholesterol and high blood pressure are also at risk of getting cardiovascular disease. People who currently have high cholesterol, high blood pressure and hypertension are at risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Poverty and stress, although not direct causes of cardiovascular disease, may indirectly trigger unhealthy habits. “This is because people who lead very stressful lives or are from deprived areas are more likely to veer towards risky behaviour, such as smoking, drinking too much or overeating,” says Ms Talbot.

Early detection can mean the difference between life and death. The NHS has rolled out a national programme offering a free health check every five years for adults aged 40 to 75, to help detect cardiovascular disease earlier. Robert Sherriff, who worked closely with the Department of Health’s advisory group, the National Screening Committee, was instrumental in making the recommendation to launch the programme.

“Stroke, diabetes and kidney disease are all connected to cardiovascular health, but a lot of patients don’t see a link,” says Dr Sherriff. “The programme is able to identify risk and manage it early, or detect the disease and have the patient put forward for treatment.”

For men over the age of 65, the NHS offers an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm (AAA) Screening Programme, which is an initiative to reduce deaths from ruptured aneurysms through early detection, monitoring and treatment.

Private screening tests for cardiovascular diseases are also available for people willing to pay, but NHS general practitioner Margaret McCartney warns not to get caught up in the hype.

“I am concerned about the biased information people are getting about tests,” says Dr McCartney. “It’s very important for people to know that the NHS already offers screening programmes that are evidence based. However, many commercial screening companies make their living out of scaring people and hyping up the value of their tests.”

Reducing cardiovascular risk begins at home and a healthy lifestyle can reduce cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and even reverse very early symptoms of diabetes, she says.

“It’s the simple things – eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, getting exercise most days, keeping to a healthy weight and not smoking. For people with a family history of heart disease, it’s important to discuss this early with your doctor.”

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR DOCTOR

What is my risk of cardiovascular disease over the next ten years and over the rest of my lifetime?

What are my risk factors for heart disease?

What can I do to reduce my risk of cardiovascular disease?

Should I take an over-the-counter drug such as statins, vitamins or other supplements?

What is my blood pressure and my cholesterol level, and what do the numbers mean?

What about my family? Are they at risk of having cardiovascular disease?