A word from the doctor



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Michaela is a GP partner working for the NHS in the West Midlands. She has been working as a GP for six years and is married with two young children.

Her husband was recently diagnosed with cardiovascular disease and the family have since made drastic changes to their lifestyle to improve their heart health and reduce the risk of future cardiovascular events such as a stroke or heart attack.

Dr Michaela, How much of a problem is cardiovascular disease in the UK?

 "It’s a huge problem! It’s estimated that over a quarter of all deaths in the UK are caused by cardiovascular disease  (CVD) and this equates to one death every 3 minutes*.

 "Each day, seven million people are living with CVD, which can have a huge impact on a person’s quality of life due to the physical and emotional burden of debilitating symptoms."

*Source: British Heart Foundation

Why do you think CVD is such a problem these days?

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"There are multiple risk factors for developing heart disease, including genetic predisposition and lifestyle. Lifestyle choices such as smoking, drinking alcohol, high fat diets and lack of exercise can significantly increase the risk of developing CVD.

"Our busy modern lifestyles place little emphasis on taking time and effort to make food from scratch and predispose us to rely on high-salt, high-fat 'ready-made' alternatives while relaxing in front of our box sets, instead of going for a run.

"There is of course nothing wrong with relaxing in front of the TV now and then, but unfortunately too many of us are ignoring the importance of regular physical exercise and a balanced diet."

When should people start thinking about their heart health?

"I think encouraging healthy lifestyle habits from childhood is the best strategy for improving society’s heart health. Getting kids interested in exercise from a young age as well as involving them in exploring healthy food choices can help children to naturally adopt these healthy lifestyle practices, thus reducing the chance of developing heart disease in the first place.


"Of course, genetics plays a huge role in development of CVD, which we cannot change, therefore all the more reason to try and focus on the things we can control like diet and exercise.


"Realistically, the time most people start thinking about heart health is when they develop symptoms, suggesting they might already have a problem. The NHS provides a free 'health check' for over-40s to check things like blood pressure, cholesterol, sugar levels and Body Mass Index (BMI). All of these can be risk factors for developing CVD and discussing the results with your practice nurse or GP can be a really useful way of identifying and controlling a risk before it turns into an actual problem."

What sort of lifestyle does the NHS recommend for people who want to look after their hearts?

"It is thought that 7 in 10 women and 6 in 10 men do not do enough physical activity to protect their hearts from CVD*.

"The British Heart Foundation recommend 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise over the space of a week. Moderate intensity exercise means that you should feel warmer, your heart should beat faster and breathe harder but still be able to carry out a conversation.

"Stopping smoking carries a lot of health benefits including significantly reducing the risk of heart disease.

"National guidelines for alcohol advise us that men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week (and this should be evenly spread out over several days) in addition you should have some alcohol-free days. Patients often think that some alcohol is beneficial for your heart. However, research suggests this benefit only applies to women over 55 who limit alcohol intake to 5 units per week, and any presumed protective effects of alcohol on the heart may be outweighed by negative effects on other organs.

"A healthy balanced diet can help reduce the risk of CVD, high blood pressure and diabetes. The NHS recommends long-term commitment to healthy eating as opposed to short-term diets aimed at achieving dramatic weight loss that is often unsustained.


"General principles of healthy eating include eating lots of vegetables and fresh fruit, choosing wholegrain starchy foods, such as wholemeal bread, pasta and rice, in preference to white versions, and reducing the amount of red meat and replacing it with lean turkey, chicken or fish. When meat is cooked, try to choose low-fat options and physically remove visible fat prior to cooking.


"Try to grill or oven-cook instead of frying and limit the amount of oils and fats used in cooking.


"Reduce the amount of salt added in food and be aware of the sugar and salt content of shop bought foods.


"Also consider increasing the amount of high protein foods like lentils, pulses and beans in your diet."

*Source: British Heart Foundation

Your husband has heart disease, what sort of diet and lifestyle do you guys have at home?

"We have radically changed our diet since my husband was diagnosed with CVD two years ago.


"He has chosen to adopt a mainly vegetarian diet and certainly avoids red meat which has the highest cholesterol content. We use a lot of beans and lentils and he avoids white pasta, rice and bread wherever possible. We use very minimal vegetable cooking oil.


"It felt very restrictive to start with and I felt really frustrated that I couldn’t use what I considered to be 'normal' food, but actually now I find it very easy to come up with meal options and don’t think about it as being a diet as such, and more about healthy choices which are tasty and nutritious.


"Me and the kids eat meat but I have significantly reduced the amount we eat per meal and replace it with things like lentils or chick peas or beans. We have fruit and sometime plain or soya yoghurt for dessert on occasion but I rarely have things like cakes or high fat or sugar desserts in the house.


"My husband has a fitness regime involving cardiovascular exercise using a exercise bike and weight training on alternate nights through the week. He has lost three stone following these lifestyle changes, enabling him to achieve a healthy BMI and feel that he has more energy overall."

What sort of lifestyle does the NHS recommend for people who want to look after their hearts?

"I would advise them to consider the diet and lifestyle changes that they might benefit from and seek guidance from websites such as the British Heart Foundation and NHS Choices that gives details of the sorts of lifestyle changes that can benefit heart health.


"In addition, seek advice from your practice nurse or GP if you have more specific questions and I would also recommend discussing the option of a free NHS Health Check if you are over 40, in order to identify any risk factors for cardiovascular disease that could be then dealt with prior to developing symptomatic disease."