In the UK, more than half of us will get a heart or circulatory condition in our lifetime, according to the British Heart Foundation.
It’s why looking after your heart health now is so important - and why recognising the signs and symptoms of common heart problems and getting them checked out is key.
If you’ve got a company health insurance plan, we think you should be using it to stay healthy - and get seen and treated as soon as possible. So here are some important facts about heart health, and when it might be time to use your Equipsme plan.
Healthy heart habits
Boringly, we all probably already know what we SHOULD be doing to keep our hearts healthy. It won’t surprise you to learn that it involves quitting smoking, reducing alcohol, eating better and moving around a bit more.
But with 7.6 million people living with heart and circulatory diseases, costing the UK £9 billion a year, it’s probably just worth a reminder…
So these are the 5 things that really can make a difference to your heart health:
1. Quitting the cigarettes
The chemicals in cigarette smoke does considerable damage to the lining of coronary arteries, which can block them up or narrow them, putting smokers at more risk of coronary heart disease, and heart attack.
In fact, smokers are almost twice as likely to have a heart attack than non-smokers.
2. Managing your weight
Lots of us have put on a few pounds over the pandemic, but being considerably overweight puts your heart under pressure, and can also lead to coronary heart disease.
3. Exercising regularly
The heart is a muscle, and like all muscles needs physical activity to keep it working properly. That means spending less time sat down still is a good thing.
The NHS recommends that adults should be doing at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week (unless otherwise advised) to maintain a healthy heart, which could include things like brisk walking, riding a bike, or dancing.
4. Looking at your diet
Eating a low-fat, high-fibre diet, including whole grains and 5 portions of fruit and veg a day, can also help keep your heart healthy.
Eating too many fatty foods could cause a build-up of cholesterol in your blood, which can block blood vessels and make you more likely to have heart problems or a stroke.
5. Moderating your alcohol consumption
Long term, over-indulging in alcohol can increase your blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels.
The NHS advises people should not be drinking more than 14 units a week (and not all at the same time). That’s equivalent to 6 pints of beer or 10 small glasses of wine.
Other risk factors
It’s also worth knowing that there are other risk factors involved in heart health that are much harder to do anything about. People with a family history of heart disease, for instance, or people with diabetes, which can damage blood vessels and increase the likelihood of things like heart problems and strokes.
There are a lot of different heart conditions, many of which you’ve probably heard of, but you might not know EXACTLY what they are, or what they look like. So we’ve answered some common questions for you in our heart glossary:
What is Angina?
Angina describes the chest pain you get as a result of reduced blood flow to the heart muscles. It can feel heavy and tight, and is often brought on by physical activity or stress, but stops after a few minutes rest. It’s not usually life threatening in itself, but could be a sign you’re more at risk of heart problems like a heart attack or stroke.
What is Arrhythmia?
Arrhythmias are heart rhythm problems. The most common is called atrial fibrillation where the heart beats irregularly and faster than normal. But it can also be a slower heartbeat, or episodes of your heartbeat raising when at rest.
More common in older people, something like atrial fibrillation does put you at more risk of a stroke. It can be triggered by viral illness, alcohol, drugs or medication, as well as exercise. Symptoms obviously include heart palpitations, but also dizzy spells and shortness of breath.
What is High Blood Pressure?
It’s very difficult to tell if you have high blood pressure, which is why it should be checked as part of a regular health check. Blood pressure measures the force with which your heart pumps blood around your body, and the resistance to the blood flow in blood vessels. If blood pressure is too high, it puts extra strain on your heart.
What is a Cardiac Arrest?
A cardiac arrest is caused by an electrical problem in the heart, where it suddenly stops pumping blood around the body. The person will be unconscious, unresponsive, not breathing or breathing abnormally. Immediate treatment with CPR or a defibrillator to restart the heart is essential.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance in the blood, and when it’s too high it means the fatty deposits in your blood vessels can clog up your arteries, and increase your risk of heart disease. It’s very hard to tell what your cholesterol levels are like without a blood test, but how you eat and exercise are a major factor.
What is Coronary Heart Disease (what is CHD)?
Coronary Heart Disease is the most common type of heart and circulatory disease. It happens when the arteries become narrowed by the build-up of fatty material called atheroma. If a piece of atheroma breaks off, blood clots form around it as the body tries to fix the damage to the artery. The clot can block the coronary artery, and stops blood and oxygen reaching the heart. This is called myocardial infarction – otherwise known as a heart attack.
What is CPR?
CPR stands for Cardiopulmonary resuscitation – an emergency procedure to help someone who is in cardiac arrest. CPR might not be quite what you thought you know, because current guidance is to give hands-only CPR because of the risk of Covid. It still saves lives.
More and more public areas are now getting defibrillators too – an easy to use machine that can shock the heart back into a normal rhythm. If it’s been a while since you did a first aid course, it’s really worth taking a look at these great training videos from the British Heart Foundation, including CPR for children, and defibrillator awareness.
What is a Heart Attack?
A heart attack is not the same as cardiac arrest. For a start, the person having a heart attack is usually still conscious and breathing – not collapsed. A heart attack happens when an artery supplying blood to the heart muscle becomes blocked. Part of the heart muscle can’t get enough oxygen to work properly, and causes chest pain or discomfort.
What is Heart Failure?
Heart failure is when your heart isn’t working like it should, and isn’t pumping enough blood around your body and brain. People with heart failure experience shortness of breath when active or resting, and tiredness or weakness because they’re not getting enough oxygen. They can also get swollen feet, ankles or stomach – around the lower back area.
What is a Stroke?
A stroke happens when the flow of blood to the brain is interrupted. It affects people in different ways depending which part of the brain is impacted. Typically it impacts speech, as well as how people think and move.
Symptoms to look out for
We spoke to Equipsme’s GP consultant Dr Faye Gallagher about the heart health signs that really shouldn’t be ignored.
She advised: “If you have a cough for more than three weeks it’s time to go and see your GP, and they are likely to refer you on for a chest x-ray, just to check you over. Likewise if you have chest pain or heaviness you may need a more urgent review – even if you don’t feel like it’s it serious.
“The simple things that keep your heart healthy and sometimes reverse damage are often some of the harder things to do like stopping smoking, improving your diet or increasing your exercise. It might be time to think more seriously about trying these again.
“There are of course other symptoms that need more immediate action. Knowing the signs of a heart attack or stroke, for instance, can help you know when to get help for yourself or those around you. Acting fast and taking some really simple first aid steps can make a huge difference to the outcome people experience.”
Signs of a heart attack
- Pain or discomfort in the chest that doesn’t go away. It can be severe, or an uncomfortable heavy burning sensation similar to indigestion.
- Pain that spreads to either arm, to the neck, jaw, back or stomach.
- Feeling sick, sweaty, light-headed or shortness of breath.
- Some people also experience a sense of anxiety or dread, or coughing and wheezing
The British Heart Foundation and Dr Gallagher also point out that some people could have a heart attack without any of these symptoms, as everyone experiences pain differently. Heart attacks can look very different, for instance, in women, who are often slower to seek medical attention.
If you think you or someone you know is having a heart attack, get them to sit down and rest, call 999, and get them to take an aspirin if there is one to hand.
Signs of a stroke
- Facial weakness – can the person smile? Is their mouth or eye drooping?
- Arm movement – can they raise both arms?
- Speech – can they speak clearly and understand what you’re saying?
If you think you or someone you know is having a stroke, it’s Time to call 999 immediately.
How Equipsme can help you keep your heart healthy
Your Equipsme plan can help you look after your heart. For a start, our 24/7 GP means you can book an appointment to talk to a Dr by phone or video call – including evenings or weekends, subject to availability – and get a second opinion if you feel you need one.
Find out more about how to use the 24/7 GP
Through our partners Thriva, you can also get a simple finger-prick blood test that arrives through the post, to check things like your cholesterol levels and blood sugar levels.
Find out more about how to use our health checks
For more information about heart health, and the references in this article, please visit:
The British Heart Foundation www.bhf.org.uk
The National Health Service www.nhs.uk