How You Can Prevent Heart Disease

Do you know your heart health numbers? Here are some simple ways to check the health of your heart.

By Amie Leckie

Heart disease is one of the single biggest killers in the UK and there are various health markers that contribute to the development of it. Two of these markers are cholesterol and blood pressure. It is estimated that up to 4.8 million adults may be living with undiagnosed high blood pressure in the UK and around 50% of heart attacks and strokes are associated with high blood pressure. High levels of cholesterol are associated with 1 in 4 deaths from cardiovascular disease in the UK, and it is estimated that around half of adults in the UK are living with cholesterol above national guidelines.

Despite tests to identify these markers being minimally invasive and generally easy to access, a recent survey by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Centre identified that less than half of adults know their blood pressure and only one in five know their cholesterol. Whilst this survey was conducted in the USA, a survey conducted by Heart Research UK in 2022 found similar result. Of the nearly 2000 respondents, 40% had not had their blood pressure checked within the last year and 60% had not had their cholesterol checked within the last year, 31% of respondents had never had it checked.

Heart Research UK carry out health checks in the community throughout the UK and the results suggest the UK population needs support to positively impact their cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Of the health checks Heart Research UK conducted in 2023, 43% of individuals were referred to their GP for high cholesterol and 33% were referred for high blood pressure. Furthermore, 66% of those tested had blood pressure readings outside the healthy range and 62% had cholesterol readings outside the healthy range.

In this article, we explain these two key markers, give you
the healthy ranges you should be aiming for, offer guidance on how you can get
yours tested and give you some top tips for things you can do to start
improving your heart health.

What are my cholesterol levels meant to be?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in our blood. There
are two main types, LDL, sometimes called ‘bad cholesterol’, and HDL, sometimes
called ‘good cholesterol’. We need some of both types of cholesterol, but the
incorrect balance can be harmful. High levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood
can contribute to plaque formation in the walls of the arteries, whilst HDL
cholesterol removes harmful cholesterol from the bloodstream.

table 1

What are my blood pressure levels meant to be?

Blood pressure is the measure of the force that your heart uses to pump blood around your body. It is measured in millimetres of mercury (mmHg) and is given as two numbers, systolic and diastolic. Systolic pressure is the pressure when your heart contracts to pump blood around your body and is the first number you will see on your result. Diastolic pressure is the pressure when your heart relaxes between beats and is the second number on your result. For example 120/80, 120 is the systolic reading and 80 is the diastolic reading.

table 2

Getting your blood pressure and cholesterol checked

The only way to know if your blood pressure or cholesterol is high is to have them checked. Checks are quick, easy and could be lifesaving. Adults aged 40 years or over should aim to have their blood pressure and cholesterol checked at least every five years. You can ask your GP to check your markers, or you may be able to book a health check at your local pharmacy or gym. You could consider investing in a home blood pressure monitor to keep track of your numbers. Check out our ‘How to take your Bp video’ for a guide on measuring your blood pressure at home.

How can you prevent heart disease with simple lifestyle changes?

The positive news is that these two heart health markers are
modifiable through healthy diet and lifestyle changes.

  • Heart-Healthy Diet
    What we eat can have a dramatic impact on the health of our heart. Things like consuming more fibre from fruits, vegetables and wholegrains, as well as reducing your consumption of processed foods can positively impact your cholesterol and blood pressure. See Field Doctor's dietitian, Laura Tilt’s article on heart-healthy diets for more ideas.
  • Decrease Alcohol Consumption
    Limiting alcohol consumption can improve your heart health. Alcohol can raise cholesterol levels in our blood and cutting back on how much we consume can improve the health of our liver so we can better remove ‘bad cholesterol’ from our blood.
  • Exercising More
    Aerobic exercise such as running or cycling
    can help increase the levels of ‘good cholesterol’ in our blood and help us
    maintain healthy blood pressure.
  • Seek Help to Stop Smoking
    Smoking can negatively affect your blood
    pressure and if you smoke, stopping may well be the single best thing you can
    do to prevent heart disease.
  • Managing Stress
    Proactively managing our stress levels by scheduling in self-care practices is an important part of staying healthy. Individuals with higher levels of stress tend to make less healthy lifestyle choices such as not exercising and not eating a balanced diet, and this negatively impacts their heart health.
  • Prioritise Sleep
    Poor sleep can negatively impact our heart health, along with many other areas of our physical and mental wellbeing. Similarly to stress, when we are sleep deprived we tend to adopt less-healthy lifestyle behaviours which can negatively affect those all-important heart health markers.

For more information on how you can protect yourself from
heart disease, head to the Heart Research UK website and check out our Heart Healthy Tips.