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Myocardial infarction - Preventing a heart attack

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Making lifestyle changes is the most effective way to prevent having a heart attack (or having another heart attack).

There are three main steps you can take to prevent heart attacks (as well as strokes):

  • eat a healthy, balanced diet
  • avoid smoking
  • try to keep your blood pressure at a healthy level

Diet

Eating an unhealthy diet high in fat will make your atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) worse and increase your risk of heart attack.

Continuing to eat high fat foods will cause more fatty plaques to build-up in your arteries. This is because fatty foods contain cholesterol.

There are two main types of cholesterol:

  • low-density lipoprotein (LDL) - is mostly made up of fat plus a small amount of protein; this type of cholesterol can block your arteries so it is often referred to as 'bad cholesterol'
  • high-density lipoprotein (HDL) - is mostly made up of protein plus a small amount of fat; this type of cholesterol can reduce deposits in your arteries so is often referred to as 'good cholesterol'

There are also two types of fat, saturated and unsaturated. Avoid foods containing high levels of saturated fat because they increase levels of bad cholesterol in your blood.

Foods high in saturated fat include:

  • meat pies
  • sausages and fatty cuts of meat
  • butter
  • ghee (a type of butter often used in Indian cooking)
  • lard
  • cream
  • hard cheese
  • cakes and biscuits
  • foods that contain coconut or palm oil

Eating a small amount of unsaturated fat will increase the level of good cholesterol and help reduce any blockage in your arteries. Foods high in unsaturated fat include:

  • oily fish
  • avocados
  • nuts and seeds
  • sunflower, rapeseed and olive oil

Read more about healthy eating and facts about fat.

Smoking

Smoking is a major risk factor for heart attacks because it causes atherosclerosis and raises blood pressure.

If you decide to stop smoking, your GP will be able to refer you to an NHS Stop Smoking Service which will provide dedicated help and advice about the best ways to quit.

You can also call the NHS Smoking Helpline on 0300 123 1044 (9am to 8pm weekdays and 11am to 5pm on weekends). Specially trained helpline staff will offer free expert advice and encouragement.

If you are committed to quitting but do not want to be referred to a stop smoking service, your GP should be able to prescribe medical treatment to help with withdrawal symptoms you may experience.

For more information about giving up smoking, see stop smoking.

High blood pressure

Persistent high blood pressure can put your arteries and heart under extra strain, increasing your risk of heart attack.

High blood pressure can often be reduced by a healthy diet, moderating your intake of alcohol, maintaining a healthy weight, and taking regular exercise.

Diet

The dietary advice above also applies if you have high blood pressure. In addition, cut down on the amount of salt in your food and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables.

Salt raises your blood pressure. The more salt you eat, the higher your blood pressure. You should aim to eat less than 6g (0.2oz) of salt a day, which is about a teaspoonful. Find out more about how to cut down on salt.

Eating a low-fat diet that includes lots of fibre, such as wholegrain rice, bread and pasta, and plenty of fruit and vegetables, has been proven to help lower blood pressure. Fruit and vegetables are full of vitamins, minerals and fibre and help keep your body in good condition.

You should aim to eat five 80g portions of fruit and vegetables every day.

Find out more about getting your 5 A Day.

Alcohol

Regularly drinking alcohol above the limits recommended by the NHS will raise your blood pressure.

Therefore, staying within the recommended levels is the best way to reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure. The recommended limits for alcohol consumption are:

  • three to four units a day for men
  • two to three units a day for women

Find out how many units are in your favourite tipple, track your drinking over time and get tips on cutting down.

Alcohol is also high in calories, so you will gain weight if you drink regularly. Being overweight will also increase your blood pressure. Find out how many calories are in popular drinks.

Weight

Being overweight forces your heart to work harder to pump blood around your body which can raise your blood pressure. Find out if you need to lose weight with the BMI healthy weight calculator.

If you do need to shed some weight, it is worth remembering that just losing a few pounds will make a big difference to your blood pressure and overall health. Get tips on losing weight safely.

Exercise

Being active and taking regular exercise will lower your blood pressure by keeping your heart and blood vessels in good condition. Regular exercise can also help you lose weight which will help lower your blood pressure.

Low-impact activities such as walking, swimming and cycling are recommended. More strenuous activities, such as playing football and squash, may not be recommended. Check with the doctor in charge of your care.

Find out more about walking for healthswimming for fitness and the benefits of cycling.

Read more about preventing high blood pressure.

Blood
Blood supplies oxygen to the body and removes carbon dioxide. It is pumped around the body by the heart.
Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fatty substance made by the body that lives in blood and tissue. It is used to make bile acid, hormones and vitamin D.
Heart
The heart is a muscular organ that pumps blood around the body.
Heart attack
A heart attack happens when there is a blockage in one of the arteries in the heart.
High blood pressure
Hypertension (high blood pressure) is when the pressure of the blood in your bloodstream is regularly above 140/90 mmHG.
Lungs
Lungs are a pair of organs in the chest that control breathing. They remove carbon dioxide from the blood and replace it with oxygen.
Obese
Obesity is when a person has an abnormally high amount of body fat.
Medical Review: March 13, 2012
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