Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one of the most common health problems affecting people in the UK. It’s also one of the most deadly—according to the British Heart Foundation, heart and circulatory diseases cause more than a quarter (28%) of all deaths in the UK. In this article, we take a look at the five best ways to reduce your CVD risk. And not only are they good for your health, they can also do wonders for your bank balance.
Cardiovascular Disease Stats
Nearly 170,000 deaths each year are attributed to heart and circulatory diseases—an average of 460 every day or one every three minutes. In addition, around 7.4 million people in the UK live with heart and circulatory disease in the UK: 3.9 million men and 3.5 million women.
Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart and circulatory disease. It is also the most common cause of heart attack, which see more than 100,000 hospital admissions every year in the UK. That’s one every five minutes.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The good news is that, with the exception of rare genetic conditions, CVD is generally preventable. Just a few simple lifestyle changes can drastically reduce your risk of being affected by CVD. And not only will you be healthier if you avoid CVD, but as travel insurance with medical conditions cost more, you'll save money as an added bonus!
What Causes Cardiovascular Disease?
Many factors can lead to an increased risk of getting CVD, and some are more preventable than others. Your age, gender, genetics and ethnicity are four indicators that of course cannot be changed, but they do impact your risk of heart disease.
Age: Not surprisingly, your risk of getting heart disease will increase as you age.
Gender: Men initially have a greater risk of developing heart disease than women, but the risk more or less balances out after women go through the menopause.
Genetics: you will unfortunately higher in-built risk of developing CVD if there is a history of premature heart disease in your family.
Ethnicity: data shows that if you are of a South Asian background, you may be at a higher risk of developing coronary heart disease, which could lead to a heart attack. If you are of an African-Caribbean background, you may be more likely to have high blood pressure. And people of African-Caribbean and South Asian ethnicity are more likely to get type 2 diabetes than the rest of the population.
A Few Lifestyle Changes Can Make the World of Difference to Your Health
So, what can you do if you are born with an increased risk of CVD? And how to minimise your risk of CVD even if you’re not? Well, you can only control the controllables.
The best way to protect yourself is to tackle those risk factors that are within your control. This includes giving up smoking, drinking less alcohol, staying at a healthy weight, reducing stress levels, exercising more and following a heart-healthy diet.
We know what you’re thinking: you know all this already, you’ve heard it a million times, and you can’t possibly do all this at once. Well, you don't need to. Picking just one or two of these lifestyle habits to work on can help you start reducing your risk of CVD.
1. Quit Smoking
We all know that smoking can lead to no end of serious health problems. And while this isn’t an article about cancer, it’s worth stressing that there are almost 50,000 new cases of lung cancer every year in the UK, making it the third most common form of cancer (after breast cancer and prostate cancer).
According to Cancer Research UK, 79% of lung cancer cases are preventable. Makes you think, doesn’t it…
On the CVD front, smoking damages heart vessels, increases heart rate and reduces oxygen in the blood. Smoking also damages artery linings which can increasing the risk of angina, heart attack and stroke.
Furthermore, the benefits of quitting smoking appear quickly. After only one year of quitting, your risk of CVD falls by up to half.
Quit Smoking and Save a Packet
But forget about the health risks from smoking for a second—just think about the financial benefits from giving up.
In the 2018 budget, then Chancellor Philip Hammond whacked on an extra 28p of duty to a pack of 20 cigarettes, making the average price £10.80.
Even if you’re a light smoker who smokes, say, a pack a week, you will still save yourself £561.60 in a year. If you’re a pack-a-day smoker, you’ll be a cool £3,942 better off a year later. In fact, the average British smoker spends over £100,000 on cigarettes during their lifetime. Just think about that the next time you buy a pack of twenty.
Okay, Okay, I Get it! But How to Quit?
Even though smokers are well aware of the risks of smoking, tobacco is so addictive that most still find it very difficult to quit. However, a number of programmes and methods are available to help smokers kick their habit.
If your addiction is fairly mild, you can consider cutting down the amount of cigarettes you smoke per day until you completely stop. Alternatively, you can try to quit cold turkey, though you should note that this method has a low success rate and many people start and quit multiple times before they are successful.
Those with a stronger nicotine addiction may benefit from smoking cessation products and programmes. Nicotine-replacement products like patches and gums do have some success, and drugs treatments such as Champix and Zyban are also available. The NHS offers some good information to help people quit smoking.
2. Reduce Your Alcohol Consumption
We’ve all heard that drinking a glass of wine a day may be positive for your health, and there may have been some truth in this. A few studies indeed indicated that moderate alcohol consumption may increase HDL cholesterol (the good one), which promotes heart health.
However, those studies ignored other factors that contributed to heart health but had nothing to do with alcohol consumption, such as the fact that those people that drank red wine in moderation may have been wealthier, had access to healthier food, better education and better healthcare.
Unfortunately for the wine drinkers among you, a 2018 study by The Lancet showed there’s no amount of alcohol that’s beneficial to your health.
Excessive drinking can lead to a whole host of heart-related conditions including stroke, cardiomyopathy, cardiac arrhythmia and sudden cardiac death.
If you do have to drink, then at least try to stay within the recommended limits. These days, the UK’s Drinking limit recommendations no more than 14 units of alcohol per week—that’s for both men and women.
What do 14 units of alcohol look like? It’s 6 pints of 4% beer or 6 glasses (175ml) of 13% wine, or 14 glasses (25ml) of spirits like gin, vodka or whisky.
One of the best ways to cut down your alcohol intake is to have a few self-imposed alcohol-free days each week. And binge drinking is a big no-no as far as health is concerned. There’s no point going dry for 6 days, then drinking all 14 units (or more) in a single session. Just don’t do it—you’ll certainly regret it the next morning, and you may regret it even more in later life.
3. Switch to a Heart-Healthier Diet
A clean and healthy diet does more than just help you shed some excess weight. It can also help reduce the risk of getting heart disease by lowering your cholesterol, keeping your weight under control and providing your body with the nutrients it needs. I know we’ve all heard this before, but the more we eat fruit and vegetables, whole grains and healthy proteins like fish, while reducing unhealthy fats, salt, sugar and processed foods, the better.
There’s now a healthy amount of evidence (pun intended) suggesting that increasing your intake of leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, lettuce, spinach and cabbage can reduce your risk of CVD.
And don’t think that eating more healthily will break the bank. Studies have shown that canned and frozen produce is just as healthy for you as fresh produce and they can be cheaper than fresh, making it easier to find room in your food budget for produce—just make sure your canned goods don’t contain added salt, which is the devil’s dandruff as far as heart health is concerned.
4. Reduce Your Stress Levels
Stress is virtually unavoidable, especially in today’s hectic world, and yet there is now overwhelming evidence to show that it can wreak havoc on the mind and body. Its link to heart disease is particularly worrying.
While it was previously thought that heart attacks occur solely due to events inside the body (for example, when a blocked artery ruptures and blocks blood flow through a coronary artery), it is now widely accepted that stress and anger levels may also play a role. This is because stress can lead to surges in your heart rate and blood pressure, leading to instability in the plaque (fat, calcium and cholesterol) inside your arteries and veins.
And it’s not just heart attacks that can result from stress, either. Research has found that people suffering from chronic work-related stress had a risk of CVD that was up to 40% higher, compared to people who didn’t suffer from work stress. So if you’re prone to being chronically stressed at work, be kind to your heart and try to find ways to de-stress. The good news is that most stress-reduction methods cost very little, if anything.
For instance, try identifying the source of your stress by writing down the things during your day that stress you out. Then, see whether you can make some changes in your workplace to try to eliminate some of these stressors. If necessary, talk to your supervisor, manager or workplace counsellor.
You should also try to find time to relax during the day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. This includes taking breaks, going out for a walk or simply doing some breathing exercises. Post-work stress reduction methods include exercising, meditation and mindfulness, and spending quality time with your family and friends.
5. Find Time to Exercise
Exercise is a great way to combat a combination of risk factors. Not only is staying active good for your heart, but it will also help to control your weight and reduce stress. In fact, exercising regularly can reduce by up to 50% your risk of several chronic conditions, including coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes.
In order to counter the negative effects of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of intense exercise per week for adults. This works out to just 15-30 minutes per day for 5 days out of the week.
If you’re worried that your busy life allows no time to get to the gym, don’t worry—even normal everyday activity counts towards your exercise goal. For instance, walking and taking the stairs, even doing housework, all count towards your 150-minute exercise goal.
So you don’t need to spend hundreds of pounds per year on a gym membership to stay active. Try parking your car further away from your workplace, getting off the bus or tube one stop early and walk more to work, or taking the stairs instead of the lift or escalator can all help you achieve your weekly goal.
At weekends, can more of an effort to go on longer walks, and maybe have your friends or family join you as a way to kickstart your healthy habits.
Heart-health: the final word
As we’ve seen, there are plenty of changes we can all make to improve our health and reduce our chances of being affected by cardiovascular disease in later life.
You don’t need to transform your life and tackle them all at once. To make things manageable (and so that you’re more likely to stick with your better habits), maybe start by focusing on just one of these, like taking some time for daily meditation and reflection to reduce your stress levels, or do a bit more exercise, even if you’re not yet ready to commit to a full weekly gym schedule.
And when you are ready for the gym, you can pay for your membership with all the money you’ll be saving from drinking less and giving up smoking.
So, come on, what are you waiting for?