How Heart-Healthy Are You?

You’re probably aware that heart disease is a major cause of ill-health and death in the UK. The good news is that there is a lot you can do prevent it, or, slow its progression.

What influences heart health?

Whether you live a long, healthy life or not depends on many factors. Some you can’t influence (age, gender, family history) but there is a lot you can do to stay healthier longer.

Click on the links below to find out how the different factors can influence how heart healthy you are:


Stopping smoking will reduce many health risks. Smoking is extremely damaging and is the biggest avoidable risk factor as it:

  • lowers the ‘good’ cholesterol HDL (high density lipoprotein)
  • raises blood pressure
  • constricts arteries – including those supplying the heart muscle
  • reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood by replacing it with carbon monoxide
  • increases blood viscosity, making clotting more likely

Smoking cessation help and support is available through your GP and some community pharmacies. Or visit these websites for more information:

Can Stop Smoking – get ready for a change!

NHS Choices – smokefree

Lack of Exercise

Regular physical activity is very good for your heart! Thirty minutes exercise (eg walking, heavy housework) on most days of the week will help maintain health. In Scotland, 67% of women and 55% of men are not active enough to maintain their health (Scottish Government 2009). Regular exercise will help:

  • control weight
  • lower blood pressure
  • lower total cholesterol
  • raise the good HDL
  • lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes.

To find out more about how physical activity affects your health visit:

British Heart Foundation – Staying Active

The British Heart Foundation National Centre for Physical Activity and Health (BHFNC)

Scottish Government – Physical Activity


A daily intake of five portions of fresh fruit and vegetables can reduce the risk of heart disease. Red, orange and yellow fruit and vegetables are particularly good sources of the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E which can protect against heart disease and some cancers.
A diet where saturated fat (butter, cheese, red meat) is replaced by mono-unsaturated fats (olive oil) and poly-unsaturated fats (oily fish) can also be protective. Soya products, porridge, almonds and walnuts may help in lowering the ‘bad’ LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol.To find out more about healthy eating visit:
NHS Choices – 5 a day

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A moderate intake (1-2 units per day) may be cardio-protective. A heavy consumption of alcohol is linked with high blood pressure.
Is your drinking causing damage you can’t see? Click here.
How much is too much? Try an alcohol self-assessment


Cholesterol is essential for building cells in your body. However, having too much cholesterol circulating can lead to the build up of fatty plaques (atheroma) in your coronary arteries.
Total Cholesterol (TC) is a measure of the two main types of cholesterol in your blood – low density and high density lipoproteins (LDL and HDL). An excess of LDL causes the accumulation of fatty plaques (atheroma) in the coronary arteries. The ‘good’ HDL helps prevent this build up, therefore a low HDL is a risk factor. The higher the HDL the better – ideally above 1mmol/l in men and 1.2mmol/l in women. Total cholesterol below 5mmol/l is good, below 4mmol/l even better. The ratio of TC:HDL is important in assessing risk – ideally it should be less than 4.For example:If TC is 6 and HDL is 0.8 the ratio is 7.5 (= increased risk)If TC is 6 and HDL is 1.8 the ratio is 3.3 (= lesser risk)To find out more about cholesterol see the British Heart Foundation pages here.Click here to see more information on diet and cholesterol from Heart UK

Raised blood pressure

High blood pressure (hypertension) may have no symptoms, but is linked to heart attacks, heart failure and strokes. Lack of exercise, being overweight, salt intake and alcohol intake all contribute to raised blood pressure.
Learn more about:

High blood pressure from the British Hypertension Society and the effects of salt on your health

Increased weight

Being overweight increases you risk of high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference are useful in assessing risk. ody Mass Index (BMI) is calculated by dividing weight in kg by height in metres squared. BMI should be less than 25 for white people and less than 23 for people of African–Caribbean or South Asian origin, as they more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes. However, as muscle can weigh more than fat, someone who is very muscular may have a high BMI without being obese, so for a more accurate assessment waist circumference is also taken into account.Calculate your BMI here. Waist size indicates how much abdominal fat you have. Abdominal fat is strongly linked to Types 2 diabetes. Learn more about waist size and belly fat here.


Diabetics are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease as they are prone to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and low HDL (good cholesterol). Type 2 diabetes is the most common and is strongly linked to abdominal fat, hence waist measurement is a good indicator of risk.

To see how a fat belly can cause diabetes watch the cartoons here.
Learn more about diabetes here.

Family History

If a parent or sibling has had a heart attack or stroke (< 60 years) risk may be increased by up to 50%. However, bear in mind that family members often share similar lifestyles, so it is difficult to distinguish the relative influences of genetics and lifestyle.
See what the British Heart Foundation has to say about family history