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Heart disease: what you need to know

Around 25% of all deaths in the UK are due to heart and circulatory diseases, so it makes sense to arm yourself with the facts – stat

Written by Rosalind Ryan on January 19, 2019 Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on January 28, 2019

Every eight minutes, someone in the UK dies from heart disease.1 That seems like a shockingly high number, decades after heart disease was actually discovered – so, what can be done to help prevent heart disease?

What is heart disease?

Let’s start at the very beginning: your heart will beat around 2.5 billion times over your lifetime.2 Its job is to pump blood around your body, which also transports oxygen, nutrients, hormones and essential substances to your organs, muscles, bones and other tissues, and carries away waste products.3 Heart disease is the name given to a number of conditions that affect this system. Heart and circulatory diseases – also called cardiovascular diseases – refer to problems with the heart and circulation – and include:4
  • coronary heart disease: angina or heart attack
  • congenital heart disease
  • stroke
  • vascular dementia
  • diabetes

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the most common form of cardiovascular disease, and is known simply as ‘heart disease’.

What causes coronary heart disease?

The main cause of CHD is atherosclerosis – when fatty deposits, also known as plaques, build up in the arteries supplying the heart. These deposits can start to restrict blood flow to the heart and trigger angina, normally felt as pain and discomfort in your chest.5 If a plaque breaks off (a blood clot) and completely blocks the artery, this can cause a heart attack.6 Plaques are made up of cholesterol, fatty substances, and minerals. They can build up inside an artery if the inner lining has been damaged by, for example, smoking, high cholesterol or high blood pressure.7 You may be more likely to develop CHD if you have specific risk factors,8 such as:
  • smoking
  • obesity
  • family history of CHD
  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • your age – the risk increases around age 45 in men and 55 in women
  • poor diet and exercise
  • diabetes – high blood sugar levels can damage artery walls

How do I know if I have heart disease?

Unless you’ve had angina or a heart attack, CHD is usually suspected by your GP during an assessment. If your doctor thinks you may be at risk, they’ll ask you questions about your lifestyle and medical history, and may order more tests such as a cholesterol test or electrocardiogram (ECG).9

You may be offered a risk assessment as part of an NHS Health Check – available to all adults over 40 in England and Scotland – or you can ask your GP for an assessment if you’re worried about heart disease.

But I’m a woman – don’t only men get heart disease?

No, CHD actually kills more than twice as many women in the UK every year than breast cancer.10 The hormone oestrogen helps protect women from heart disease, but after menopause declining levels can raise your risk.

However, many women don’t recognise the symptoms of heart disease, and they’re less likely to seek medical attention until it may be too late. Rather than the typical ‘soap opera’ style chest-grab that men experience during a heart attack, women are more likely to have:11
  • shortness of breath
  • pain in the neck, jaw or upper back
  • pain in one or both arms
  • nausea or vomiting
  • abdominal discomfort
  • sweating
  • feeling dizzy or lightheaded
A 2003 study led by the University of Arkansas found that only 30% of women experienced chest pain before an attack. Unusual fatigue was the most common early symptom before the attack, followed by sleep problems.12 If you notice any of these symptoms, seek medical help.

Treatment for coronary heart disease

CHD can be managed with a combination of lifestyle changes, medication, and surgery, if necessary. Most medicines are aimed at reducing cholesterol, reducing your blood pressure, making the blood less likely to clot (‘thinning’ the blood), and helping to improve blood flow by widening your arteries.13 If you haven’t already, stopping smoking is the single best thing you can do to help your heart health.14 Your GP can refer you to a nurse or counsellor who can help you quit, and prescribe medication or nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) to help make it easier.

How you can prevent heart disease

A healthy lifestyle is one of the best ways to help protect yourself against CHD. You can do this by:15,16

  • following a Mediterranean Diet – an increasing number of studies show this diet is good for your heart health, thanks to large amounts of oily fish, fresh fruit and vegetables and olive oil, and less meat and dairy products
  • exercising regularly – not only will this help you lose weight, which in turn cuts your risk of diabetes and high blood pressure, exercise is good for your heart muscle, like all muscles in the body
  • reducing the amount you drink – too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure and lead to weight gain, so stick to no more than 14 units a week
  • swap saturated fats for unsaturated – too much saturated fat raises cholesterol levels but swapping cakes, cream and butter for avocados, nuts and seeds, and vegetable oils can raise levels of ‘good’ cholesterol in the blood and help you maintain a healthy weight
  • reducing your salt intake – aim for no more than 6g a day (about a teaspoon), as too much salt has been linked to high blood pressure
  • get enough omega-3s – studies show that omega-3 fatty acids can reduce blood pressure and help maintain healthy arteries
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.


1. British Heart Foundation. Heart statistics 2. Harvard Health Publishing. Heart disease 3. British Heart Foundation. How your heart works

4. As above

5. British Heart Foundation. Coronary heart disease

6. As above

7. Erica Roth and Ana Gotter. Healthline. Causes and Risks of Heart Disease

8. As above

9. NHS. Coronary heart disease. Diagnosis

10. As Source 1

11. Mayo Clinic. Understand heart disease in women: symptoms and risk factors 12. Science Daily. Unusual Fatigue May Be Warning Symptom Of Heart Attack In Women 13. NHS. Coronary heart disease. Treatment 14. British Heart Foundation. Keep your heart healthy

15. As above

16. NHS. Coronary heart disease. Prevention