The heart is arguably the most vital organ we own; it works in tandem with the lungs to ensure we always have a fresh supply of oxygen coming into the body. Without oxygen, our cells would die within minutes - the heart really is our life source. Yet when it comes to our wellbeing, the health of our heart is often forgotten. Despite this, it is thought around 7.6 million people in the UK are currently living with heart or circulatory disease - 4 million of which are men. But they are not only living with it - 27% of all deaths in the UK are attributed to heart disease. In this article I’ll be exploring the risk factors for heart disease, how inflammation can increase risk, and what you can do to keep your ticker in tip top condition.
Firstly, what is heart disease?
Heart disease is actually an umbrella term covering a wide range of conditions, including stroke, heart attack, coronary heart disease and vascular dementia (1). While some types of heart disease are inherited, most are caused by lifestyle factors, many of which are totally within our control - meaning we have the power to influence our risk of developing heart disease later in life.
What are the risk factors for developing heart disease?
There are some factors, such as age, ethnicity and sex, that we cannot change and that slightly increase our risk. For example, we know that men are at higher risk of developing heart disease and experience their first heart attack at a younger age compared to women. However, we can have an influence on many of the other risk factors, such as:
High LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol
What role does inflammation play in heart disease?
Heart attacks and strokes are two of the most common types of heart disease, which are primarily caused by blood clots through a process called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis refers to the inflammatory build up of fatty deposits or cholesterol within the artery walls, which over time harden into plaque. The body sees the plaque as a foreign substance and as such, the immune system kicks in and increases inflammation to fight it. The problem is, this inflammation can dislodge the plaque from the artery, resulting in blood clots (3).
Furthermore, when looking at the risk factors of heart disease, it’s a vicious circle with inflammation - smoking, carrying excess weight, high blood pressure and high LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol can all increase the risk of systemic inflammation; systemic inflammation itself can contribute to things like high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity, which in turn all increase the risk of heart disease (4).
What can I do to lower my risk of heart disease?
Controlling systemic inflammation and leading an active, healthy lifestyle will give you the best chance at protecting your heart. Be sure to eat a low inflammatory diet full of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables (the Mediterranean diet is a great place to start - to read more about it, click here), and stay active by following government physical activity guidelines. Reducing alcohol consumption, refined sugars and processed foods and of course, not smoking, are all positive steps to controlling the risk factors of heart disease and reducing systemic inflammation.
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