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Heart disease: What causes it and how it can be prevented

Published: 25/02/2022

Dr Anushka Patchava, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Vitality, talks us through the most important factors that contribute to the risk of heart disease.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one of the main causes of death in the UK, and according to the NHS a large proportion of this can be prevented by following a healthy diet1.

However, research recently suggested that eating vegetables alone is not enough2, especially when considering the impact of other lifestyle choices like smoking, drinking alcohol, amount of exercise and socio-economic factors such as wealth and education.

In light of this, we caught up with Dr Anushka Patchava, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Vitality, to find out more about heart disease, what causes it and how it can be prevented.

What exactly is it?

“Cardiovascular disease can be divided into two parts: ‘cardio’ which relates to conditions that affect the heart and ‘vascular’ which is to do with those that affect our circulatory (blood) system,” says Dr Patchava.

Heart disease relates to conditions that impact the anatomical structure of the heart such as inflammation of the heart muscle known as carditis or myocarditis. It may also be used to refer to conditions that affect the valves of the heart, which help blood flow through the heart in the right direction.

“Vascular disease refers to conditions that affect the blood vessels such as arteries or veins. Narrowing or blockage of blood vessels, for example due to plaque build-up, a condition called atherosclerosis, can contribute to high blood pressure (hypertension),” adds Dr Patchava. “Blocked blood vessels can then lead to a heart attack or stroke if the heart or brain are starved of oxygen.”

What are the warning signs?

When blood vessels become blocked, it can cause a number of symptoms, explains Dr Patchava. “Symptoms may include chest pain, chest tightness, chest heaviness – which could suggest your heart muscle is not receiving enough oxygenated blood. There may also be pain or weakness in our legs and arms – again, due to reduced circulation.”

Other symptoms of cardiovascular disease might be breathlessness, heart palpitations (when someone can feel their heartbeat) “This can lead to anxiety, hot sweats and dizziness and feeling faint, as well as tiredness. All signs that the body is not getting enough oxygen,” she explains.

With moderate and severe vascular conditions, it is also possible that an individual might experience swollen limbs. Extremities, such as toes or fingers, can go blue.

What are main contributing factors?

According to Dr Patchava, the biggest risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD) is smoking. “Others include being overweight and drinking too much alcohol. In addition to this there might be metabolic factors, such as high cholesterol or diabetes.”

There are environmental factors too. High stress can lead to high blood pressure, which is a cause of CVD and a contributing factor to heart attacks. Family history can also play a part. “If you have a close relative with heart disease you may be likely to suffer from it,” she adds. “Equally research also shows that people who are of Black or South Asian ethnicity have a higher risk of heart disease3. As do men4, and age can be a factor too5.”

How can it be prevented?

Managing our weight is the most important thing, Dr Patchava points out, which can be supported by physical activity and getting enough steps. “This builds up cardiovascular strength, by strengthening your heart and improving the blood flow, which helps to prevent strokes and heart attacks6.” In addition, regular exercise can lower your blood pressure and triglyceride levels, which further reduces your risk of developing CVD disease.

Eating well is another way to maintain a healthy heart. “It’s good to avoid over-indulging on foods that are high in cholesterol and salt, which can increase our blood pressure. Drinking enough fluids and reducing alcohol intake are also recommended and those who smoke should seek out ways to help them quit.”

By understanding their health through screenings individuals can discover not just whether they have high or low cholesterol levels, but how good types (known as ‘HDL’) and bad types (‘LDL’) are balanced. “Knowing this can be crucial in empowering someone to look after their heart health,” adds Dr Patchava.

What about reducing stress levels?

“There are lots of things we can do to manage stress,” she explains. This might include physical activity or looking after mental wellbeing, using techniques such as mindfulness and meditation. “It’s also important to remember the links between mental health problems, like depression, which can contribute to increased risk of heart and circulatory disease7.”

Any other tips?

Having meat-free days has been shown to lower the risk8 of chronic diseases, adds Dr Anushka. “Ensuring we get the right vitamins and minerals, and monitoring deficiencies, also helps support general wellbeing and contributes to good heart health too.”

Healthy eating benefits, smoking cessation support, diabetes prevention as well as weight management have all been built into the Vitality Programme (read more), which has been proven to improve health outcomes through the use of rewards and incentives, she points out.

Prevention aside, with the management of chronic conditions increasingly shifting onto individuals, she also points to the availability of self-care health tools.

“For heart conditions, members can use blood pressure devices or ECG devices (used to measure a heart’s electrical activity) from the comfort of their own home, enabling them to seek medical advice early when required."

- Dr Anushka Patchava, Chief Deputy Medical Officer, Vitality
Find out more about how Vitality’s Serious Illness Cover can offer more relevant, comprehensive cover for your clients:

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6. Public Health England. Physical activity: applying All Our Health
8. Tuso, et al. 2013. Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. Permanente Journal. Spring; 17(2): 61–66.