The five main risk factors that can lead to a heart attack are:
- not getting enough exercise (physical inactivity)
- high blood pressure
- being overweight or obese
- high blood cholesterol levels
To reduce your risk of having a heart attack, you may need to make some changes to your lifestyle.
Give up smoking
Smoking is a major contributor to many serious diseases, such as heart disease and lung cancer, and it is the biggest cause of death and illness in the UK. If you smoke, giving up is one of the best ways to help prevent having a heart attack.
If you decide to stop smoking, your GP will be able to refer you to an NHS Stop Smoking Service, which will provide you with dedicated help and advice about the best ways to give up smoking. You can also call the NHS Smoking Helpline on 0800 022 4332. The specially trained helpline staff can offer you free expert advice and encouragement.
If you are committed to giving up smoking but do not want to be referred to a stop smoking service, your GP should be able to prescribe medical treatment to help with any withdrawal symptoms that you may experience after quitting. See Treatment for quitting smoking and Live Well: stop smoking for more information about giving up.
Take regular exercise
If you want to keep your heart healthy, it is very important to exercise regularly. Exercise will improve your circulation and help your heart to work more efficiently.
For people without a history of heart disease, 30 minutes of vigorous exercise a day, at least five times a week, is recommended. The exercise should be strenuous enough to leave your heart beating faster and you should feel slightly out of breath afterwards. Examples of vigorous exercise include going for a brisk walk and walking up a hill.
If you have had a heart attack, see Recovering from a heart attack for advice about exercise. See Live Well: fitness for more information about fitness and exercise.
For a healthy heart, a low-fat, high-fibrediet, including whole grains and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables (at least five portions a day), is recommended. Limit the amount of salt in your diet to no more than 6g (0.2oz) a day. Too much salt will increase your blood pressure. One teaspoonful of salt is equal to about 6g.
Avoid eating foods that are high in saturated fat because this will increase your cholesterol level. Foods that are high in saturated fat include:
- meat pies
- sausages and fatty cuts of meat
- ghee (a type of butter that is often used in Indian cooking)
- hard cheese
- cakes and biscuits
- foods that contain coconut or palm oil
Eating some foods that are high in unsaturated fat can help to decrease your cholesterol level. Foods that are high in unsaturated fat include:
- oily fish
- nuts and seeds
- olive oil
See Live Well: healthy eating for more information and advice about eating healthily.
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol will cause your blood pressure to rise, as well as raising the cholesterol levels in your blood. Therefore, sticking to the recommended amounts of alcohol consumption is the best way to ensure that your risk of developing high blood pressure (hypertension) and having a heart attack is reduced.
The recommended daily limits of alcohol consumption are:
- 3-4 units of alcohol for men
- 2-3 units for women
A unit of alcohol is equal to about half a pint of normal strength lager, a small glass of wine or a pub measure (25ml) or spirits. For more information, see Live Well: alcohol.
There are many benefits associated with losing weight. If you can reach the ideal weight for your height, it will help lower your cholesterol levels and your blood pressure. By losing weight, your risk of developing heart disease will also be significantly reduced and your life expectancy will be increased.
The most successful weight loss programmes include at least 30 minutes of daily exercise, eating smaller portions and only having healthy snacks between meals. A gradual weight loss of around 0.5kg (1.1lb) a week is usually recommended.
For more advice, see Treatment for obesity and Live Well: lose weight.
Several other medical conditions can increase your risk of having a heart attack. Two of the most common conditions are hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes.
Keeping other health conditions under control will help reduce your risk of having a heart attack. This means always remembering to take any medication that you have been prescribed, visiting your GP for regular check-ups and making sure that your diet is healthy.
See High blood pressure, Type 1 diabetes and Type 2 diabetes for more information about these conditions.
High blood pressure: Hypertension (high blood pressure) is when the pressure of the blood in your bloodstream is regularly above 140/90 mmHG.
Obese: Obesity is when a person has an abnormally high amount of body fat.
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.
Blood: Blood supplies oxygen to the body and removes carbon dioxide. It is pumped around the body by the heart.
Heart attack: A heart attack happens when there is a blockage in one of the arteries in the heart.
Heart: The heart is a muscular organ that pumps blood around the body.
Lung: Lungs are a pair of organs in the chest that control breathing. They remove carbon dioxide from the blood and replace it with oxygen.