Keeping hearts healthy is the order of the day

Significant advances have been made in the treatment of heart disease, but now the focus is switching to its prevention, as Lilian Anekwe reports

Today, World Heart Day, is an opportunity to consider the statistics that place cardiovascular disease as the number-one cause of death and the biggest single contributor to health-related problems in the UK.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is an umbrella term for all the diseases of the heart and circulation, and includes high cholesterol, coronary heart disease, angina, heart attack and stroke, heart failure and high blood pressure.

Figures compiled by the British Heart Foundation show that in 2009, more than 180,000 people in the UK died of a cardiovascular disease. Nearly half of these (82,000) died of coronary heart disease.

Although these figures illustrate the scale of the challenge, they also reflect how far we have already come. Contrast the figures with those from 1961, when 166,000 people died from coronary heart disease alone, and we can see that there has been huge progress made.

The disease is commonly considered to be largely confined to older men, but women and children are also vulnerable

The good news about CVD – the reduction in the number of people killed by it – is due largely to improvements in treatments. Examples are the ongoing research into the development of a “polypill” to reduce risk and life-saving surgeries for people who suffer a heart attack.

But, despite progress, there is still much more to be done. The reduction in deaths from CVD between 1961 and 2009 show only half the battle has been won.

Experts believe we can continue to make significant gains in reducing deaths if we shift our focus to better prevention. This means moving away from treatments, where huge strides have been made in the past 50 years, to educating and empowering people with the knowledge to change the factors and behaviour that place them at risk.

Initiatives like World Heart Day are important to raise awareness. The World Health Federation, the global charity which organises World Heart Day on September 29each year, campaigns to make the public aware that at least 80 per cent of premature deaths from heart disease could be avoided if the main risk factors – tobacco, unhealthy diet and physical inactivity – are controlled.

For example, people who quit smoking for 15 years reduce their risk of CVD to the same as someone who has never smoked.

This year, World Heart Day is focusing on the risks to women and children. The disease is commonly considered to be largely confined to older men, but women and children are also vulnerable.

Research shows women consistently underestimate their CVD risk, even though cardiovascular disease kills just as many women as men. The facts, according to the British Heart Foundation, are stark.

Coronary heart disease is the single most common cause of death among women in the UK. It kills three times more women than breast cancer and estimates are that there are more than a million women in the UK living with heart problems.

Children are particularly at risk since they have little control over their environment and can be limited in the healthy lifestyle choices they are able to make.

These are some of the challenges awaiting the newly appointed Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his ministerial team. They will need to repurpose NHS services to make them dynamic enough to respond to the need for a shift in focus and enable people to take steps to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease.