Cardiovascular diseases are on the rise, but so is confusion as to how to prevent them. Shaun Ingram, MD of Cardiac Science takes a look at the data, shares his views and strikes a cautious note of optimism
At first glance, the stats are disheartening. Cardiovascular diseases (CVD) are the number one health issue affecting people worldwide, with more people dying each year from them than from any other cause. An estimated 17.9 million people died from CVDs in 2016, representing 31% of all global deaths. Of these deaths, 85% were due to strokes or heart attacks.
Despite the overwhelming figures, the truth is they only hint at the scale of the issue. Death rates don’t account for the millions around the world living with a CVD that requires long-term treatment. In the UK alone, there are an estimated 7.4 million people living with heart and circulatory diseases. Given the size of the issue the notion of a ‘cure’ might seem hopeless to contemplate, but most CVDs can actually be prevented by addressing behavioural and lifestyle factors.
But first, what actually are CVDs?
Cardiovascular diseases are disorders that affect the heart and blood vessels. Common conditions include coronary heart disease, congenital heart disease and deep vein thrombosis. Heart attacks and strokes are generally acute events, brought on by a build-up of fatty deposits in the blood vessels blocking blood flow to the heart or brain.
Who’s at risk?
Though the clear cause of CVD isn’t clear, there are many factors that increase your likelihood of getting one. High blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol and obesity are all high-risk factors for CVDs. Other factors can also come into play, such as age, gender and family history. Anyone can get a CVD but they’re most common in people over 50. Additionally, they typically affect more men than women, with 3.9 million men in the UK living with a CVD compared to 3.5 million women.
What can I do?
‘Prevention is better than cure’ is a proverb often used in cardiovascular medicine, because it’s much easier to implement lifestyle changes early than to readjust to the difficult reality of living with CVD. Taking steps toward a healthier lifestyle is one of the most effective ways to reduce your chances of CVD. Cutting out unnecessarily toxic habits dramatically reduces your risk of CVD. If you smoke or drink excessively you should try to give up or drastically reduce your intake as soon as possible.
When it comes to diet, establishing a healthy balance is recommended to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Eating more fruit and vegetables and lowering your intake of saturated fats, sugar and salt can go a long way to guaranteeing you a longer and healthier life.
CVDs can affect anyone, regardless of your fitness level. However, alongside dietary changes, it’s important to establish a regular exercise regime. Adults are recommended to do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week. Obviously, the difficulty level can be adjusted depending on your fitness level and you can consult your GP for recommendations.
According to PHE’s Health Profile for England, falling mortality rates from heart disease were the biggest cause of increases in life expectancy between 2001 and 2016. Since then, these rates have slowed significantly, signalling the need for a renewed effort to prioritise CVD prevention on a policy level.
What can the government do?
The World Heart and Stroke Forum recommends that every country should have an up-to-date policy on CVD prevention. This should be developed through ongoing dialogue between governmental, social and health groups, with three major strategic angles: population strategy, high-risk strategy and secondary prevention.
Population strategy is about tackling the lifestyle and environmental factors that can cause CVD to develop. High-risk strategy is about identifying and treating high-risk individuals early, through things like better screening and earlier diagnosis. Finally, secondary prevention is about stopping the progression of the disease in people who have already been diagnosed.
So what does this mean in practice? Between 2001 and 2016, the policies that made a big difference were actions such as banning smoking in public places, improving population-wide blood pressure levels and introducing better treatments through advances in medical science. But what to try next all depends on the country and culture in question.
For instance, while lack of nutrition is one of the biggest CVD risk factors in developing countries, in developed countries where many people drive around, it’s lack of physical activity. Developed countries aren’t all the same either: alcohol is a huge risk factor in European countries, but much less so in other nations like UAE and Saudi Arabia, where alcohol use is much more controlled.
Clearly, there is no one size fits all approach. It is up to each individual government to develop policies that address key CVD risk factors in their country, in a way that works economically.
So, whose responsibility is it?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) tackling CVD is everybody’s responsibility. And the only way to beat it is through a combination of population-wide and individual healthcare strategies. However, at Cardiac Science my team and I believe there are two other factors that make a big difference: awareness and accessibility.
That’s why we constantly strive to raise awareness of the risk factors for CVD, the conditions that can lead to cardiac arrest and the steps you can take to protect yourself and others.
And although we can’t provide global access to healthy food and exercise, we are constantly researching the latest defibrillator technology and placing public-access defibrillators far and wide. Ultimately, with the hope of saving more lives.
To find out more about life-saving skills and CVD, click here.