Heart disease and stroke

Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death on the island of Ireland and worldwide. They are part of a group of disorders that affect the heart and blood vessels known as cardiovascular disease (CVD).

CVD affects both men and women; of all deaths that occur before the age of 75 years in Europe, 43% are due to CVD in women and 36% in men (ESC, 2012). 

What is cardiovascular disease?

As your heart pumps blood around the body it delivers nutrients to all the body cells. Over many years atherosclerosis or "hardening of the arteries" can develop. This is when small fatty deposits or ‘plaques’ build up on the lining of the blood vessels. Over many years this can narrow the artery and reduce the amount of blood that can pass through. Depending on which artery is affected, a blood clot can then form on top of a plaque. This can travel through the bloodstream and cause a blockage, leading to a heart attack, a stroke or a thrombosis (blood clot).

Are some people more at risk than others?

You are more likely to develop CVD if you have certain risk factors. Some factors can be modified to lower your risk. Others factors cannot be changed and are called ‘non modifiable’ risk factors. These are:

  • being over 40
  • being male
  • having an early menopause
  • being from certain ethnic backgrounds
  • having a strong family history of heart disease

The good news is that there is a lot you can do to protect yourself from many of the risks of cardiovascular disease!

What can I do to lower my risk?

You may have some of these non-modifiable risk factors. But the good news is that there are many risk factors that you do have control over. The steps you can take to protect yourself against CVD are as follows:

Diet plays an important role in the development of heart disease and stroke

  • Stay a healthy weight: Those who are overweight and obese have a greater risk for the development of CVD, especially when the extra weight is stored around the waist. If you are overweight even losing 5-10% percentage of your body weight can lower your risk. Aim for a BMI between 18.5 – 24.9 and a waist circumference of < 32 inches for a woman or < 37 inches for a man. 
  • Eat a balanced diet: Eating a healthy balanced diet helps to control your weight and can help lower cholesterol levels. Eating the right foods can have beneficial effects and help protect against heart disease. Your diet should be low in saturated fat, focussing on high fibre wholegrain foods, vegetables, fruit and fish. Eat fish twice a week, one portion to be oily fish. Avoid trans-unsaturated fats or eat as little as possible especially from processed foods.
  • Eat more fibre: Include 5 or more portions of fruit and vegetables in your diet every day. Choose wholegrain versions of breakfast cereals, bread, rice, pasta and other grains and also try to include beans, peas and pulses in your meals where possible.
  • Lower salt intake: Lowering salt intake to below 6g per day can help lower blood pressure, high blood pressure is an important risk factor for CVD.

Other lifestyle factors

  • Don't smoke: A lifetime of smoking doubles your risk of heart disease. Giving up smoking is the single most effective step you can take to lower your risk.
  • Keep active: People who are active have a much lower risk of developing CVD than inactive people. To gain health benefits you should do at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, at least five days a week.
  • Lower alcohol intake: It has been found that low intake of alcohol (1-2 units per day) can be beneficial such as a small glass of wine or half a pint of beer. However large intakes and frequent binge drinking puts you at a greater risk for CVD.

For further information contact your GP. Advice and support can be found at the Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke (NI) or the Irish Heart Foundation (ROI).