Cardiovascular disease is still the biggest killer in the UK, but you might be surprised by some of the things that can help to keep your heart healthy...
Although mortality rates are falling, cardiovascular disease (CVD) is still the UK’s biggest killer.
In 2010, almost 180,000 died from CVD, with around 80,000 of these deaths being from coronary heart disease and 49,000 from strokes.
Eating five or more servings of fruit and vegetables each day, taking regular exercise and stopping smoking will all help to improve heart health.
Of course, we all know that this can be easier said than done. But fortunately, there’s plenty we can do to reduce our risk without having to give up all the things we enjoy.
Research suggests that making just a few simple tweaks to your daily routine really can make a difference.
1. Snack on a handful of nuts
'Walnuts are a rich source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which can help to decrease inflammation in the arteries and protect the heart,' explains British Dietetic Association spokesperson Gaynor Bussell. 'Nuts in general can help to lower cholesterol levels and they will also help to fill you up. But don’t have more than a handful as they are high in calories.'
2. Meet up with friends
According to social psychologist John Cacioppo from the University of Chicago, loneliness is linked to hardening of the arteries, which leads to high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart disease. He claims that loneliness also raises the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can interfere with circulation, making the heart work harder.
His research shows the fruit flies that are isolated have worse health and die sooner than those that interact with others. So if you’re feeling lonely, try to reconnect with old friends or find a new hobby or join a club or class to help you get out and about and meet new people.
3. Cut down on booze
There are regular reports in the news that moderate drinking – specifically of red wine - may be beneficial for your heart, but the key word here is 'may'. There's still no conclusive proof carried out in controlled studies of the benefits of alcohol on heart disease – meaning that the best thing to do is limit your consumption.
Drinking too much booze can cause abnormal heart rhythms, high blood pressure, damage to the heart muscle and other diseases such as stroke, liver problems and some cancers.
4. Drink coffee
You might have heard that drinking coffee is bad for your health, but new research from the American Heart Association suggests that the opposite might be true. Researchers in Boston have found that moderate coffee consumption - the equivalent of about 2 coffee-shop coffees per day - could reduce the risk of heart failure by as much as 11%.
But don’t get too carried away - research suggests that drinking much more than that could increase the risk of developing serious heart problems.
5. Learn how to meditate
Scientists have discovered that people with heart disease who practised Transcendental Meditation - which was made popular by The Beatles in the 1960s - can cut their risk of heart attack and stroke by half, compared to those that don’t.
This is thought to be because meditation helps to lower blood pressure - a major risk factor for CVD. In the most recent study, from the University of Iowa, scientists found that practising this type of meditation for 20 minutes per day was enough to make a difference. Deep breathing exercises and yoga breathing are believed to have similar benefits.
6. Sprinkle on some flaxseeds
'Flaxseeds, also known as linseeds, are little seeds that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids. So, like nuts, they can help a little in lowering cholesterol,' explains Gaynor Bussell. 'They are sometimes added to foods in order to help with constipation as they increase fibre intake, and having more fibre in the diet can also help to lower cholesterol.'
You can buy these small ground seeds from heath food shops, and sprinkle them on breakfast cereals or salads or add to yoghurt. 'If you want to try them, start with half a teaspoon and build up to about 2 teaspoons a day,' says Gaynor. 'The slow build up is advisable, as they can cause flatulence and bloating if you’re not used to them.'
7. Lose 5% of your body weight
We all know that losing weight can improve our health - and just a few pounds can make a big difference. 'Experts have found evidence that losing just 5-10% of your body weight if you are overweight or obese improves your metabolic profile. This means that if you have high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol, these levels come down,' explains Gaynor Bussell. 'Eating fewer calories is the only way to successfully lose weight and this is best coupled with some exercise.
'Don’t lose weight too quickly, 1-2lb per week is fine. 'Experts believe that one of the healthiest types of diet to follow is the Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables and pulses, along with some meat, fish, nuts and seeds, a little olive oil and a glass or two of red wine daily - but no more than this!'
Words: Ceri Roberts