CVD is an umbrella term given to a group of diseases affecting the cardiovascular system (that means the heart and blood vessels). These include coronary or ischaemic heart disease, stroke and peripheral artery disease (which affects the limbs - mainly the legs).
Basically, blood flow to the heart, body or brain becomes slowed or blocked by either a build up of fatty deposits or a blood clot. The fatty deposits cause the artery to become hard and narrowed, whilst a blood clot actually blocks the blood flow and restricts the supply of oxygen.
This can, ultimately, lead to angina or even a heart attack. A stroke, meanwhile, usually happens when a portion of brain tissue dies because a clot has caused a blockage. Furthermore, poor circulation in the limbs leads to cold feet and pain in the calves when walking.
There are lots of risk factors to be aware of, more than one of which often applies to most people. Smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, being overweight or obese, family history, ethnicity and eating a poor diet - leading to a build-up of bad fats in the blood - are all contributing factors.
Smoking damages the lining of the blood vessels, causing inflammation. High blood pressure also damages blood vessel walls. The high blood sugar levels of poorly controlled diabetes, meanwhile, cause a reduction in good cholesterol (HDL) levels and a build-up of bad fats (triglycerides) that are very damaging to blood vessels.
Whilst there is nothing you can do about your family history or ethnicity, being overweight or doing no exercise at all significantly increases the other risks. So, lifestyle modification will always reduce the overall risk.
Reducing the risk
Here are my tips for lowering your risk of developing CVD:
- Start by stopping smoking. Once you have been smoke-free for 5 years, your risk of heart attack and stroke is the same as for those who have never smoked. Studies have shown that people are up to five times more successful at permanently quitting if they access their local stop smoking service.
- Take some regular exercise. It needs to make you feel warm, slightly out of breath and get your heart beating a bit faster. It doesn’t have to be a marathon - brisk walking is fine. If you fancy something a bit more challenging, why not join your local Parkrun? It’s free, friendly, no obligation and widely available.
- Make some switches to your normal eating habits. Use a smaller plate if you eat too much and make a few healthy swaps. Try nibbling on heart-healthy nuts, like almonds or walnuts, instead of crisps. If you always have a choccie biccy with your coffee, try having a cold drink instead - not so good for dunking! Finally, choose whole real foods that you cook yourself, rather than ready prepared processed food, which is often full of sugar and salt - though it may say ‘low fat’ on the label!
- Get your blood pressure checked. Most pharmacies do it for free, plus you can always request a health check with your GP surgery, where you will get loads of tips and advice.
Prevention’s better than cure!