Health and WellbeingHow do you know if you are at high risk of heart problems?

How do you know if you are at high risk of heart problems?

High blood pressure, high cholesterol and other risk factors can lead to life-changing health problems. Here's how you can spot them early and help your teams to do the same.

For most people, high blood pressure and raised cholesterol have no symptoms. This means that people are living with these conditions, unaware of the life-changing harm they could cause, such as heart attacks and strokes. It’s vital to spot any problems early – when they are easier to treat – which means that everyone needs to be aware of these risk factors. To help raise awareness, the BHF is working closely with Public Health England, NHS England and other organisations.

By catching problems early, NHS England’s Long Term Plan aims to prevent 150,000 heart attacks, strokes and dementia cases by 2029. Routine health checks can be a good way to get measurements taken and find out whether you are at risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases, such as heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. In England, if you’re aged 40 to 74, you should be invited to an NHS health check. Unfortunately, there aren’t similar schemes in other parts of the UK. Younger people are least likely to attend their health checks, which means they are missing out on the chance of early diagnosis and prompt treatment of potentially fatal conditions. Among those aged 40 to 44, just 36% invited to a health check in 2017–18 attended. All of these high-risk conditions are linked to potentially preventable life-changing events.

Many people believe that a heart attack or stroke won’t happen to someone who is slim, eats healthily and doesn’t smoke, but this isn’t the case. We should all keep an eye on our risk factors – especially the ones that might not be obvious.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure (hypertension) causes blood vessels to become stiff and not work as effectively. In the long term, this causes permanent damage to the major organs, including the heart, brain, lungs and kidneys, and increases the risk of heart attack or stroke.

It is much easier to treat and control if identified early. Routine blood pressure testing is becoming increasingly available beyond GP surgeries. Pharmacies, shopping malls, leisure centres, BHF shops and even barbershops are some of the venues carrying out blood pressure checking programmes, in addition to workplace wellbeing programmes.

This work is being rolled out across the UK, with support from the BHF, to make blood pressure testing more convenient and a part of daily life, as well as to make it easier for those who might be less likely to have a blood pressure check to get tested. High blood pressure is usually defined as over 140/90mmHg (millimetres of mercury) – but you won’t be diagnosed from a one-off reading. If a reading suggests your blood pressure is high, you should have further testing to confirm it. If you are found to have high blood pressure, the most important things to do are to take any medication you are prescribed to reduce it, as well as reducing your salt intake. Losing weight, taking regular exercise, reducing how much alcohol you drink and not smoking will also help.

One of the aims of this Long Term Plan is to reduce the number of people with undiagnosed high blood pressure and to ensure that they are treated according to the national guidelines.

High cholesterol

Having high cholesterol can lead to fatty substances sticking to your artery walls, reducing blood flow. This can increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke. You can’t feel your cholesterol level increasing, so you might not realise there is a problem until you have a heart attack or stroke.

The only way to find out if your cholesterol is high is by having a blood test called a lipid profile. You can get this done at your GP practice or, certain local hospitals and some workplace health checks. It can be as simple as a finger prick test, or you might need a small blood sample to be taken through a needle.

The test gives a breakdown of the levels of ‘good’ cholesterol (known as high-density lipids or HDL) and ‘bad’ cholesterol (low-density lipids or LDL) in the blood. Knowing your numbers is a vital part of reducing your risk of heart and circulatory diseases. If your ‘bad’ cholesterol is found to be high, you can be prescribed statins. They reduce the levels of bad cholesterol and increase the good cholesterol, as well as protecting the inside of the artery walls. There is strong evidence that, if you are found to have high cholesterol, taking statins significantly reduces your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Can you afford not to take care of your team’s health?

Given this medical information can seem complex, it’s key that individuals know, but also understand, their risk and are empowered to take action to improve their health.

At the British Heart Foundation, we’re on a mission to beat heartbreak forever. That’s why we’re so committed to helping people stay healthy in the workplace. Our Health at Work programme aims to ensure that risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity are not just detected, but easily explained to employees, with supporting health resources to enable them to own their health improvement journey.  Our team of BHF health practitioners would be more than happy to advise and support you and your organisation’s health and wellbeing needs.

Furthermore the benefits of a workplace wellbeing strategy are not solely health-related.  Engagement, resilience and retention are all given a boost when you take care of your employees. What’s more, a healthier, happier workforce means sick days often go down and productivity often goes up.  So taking care of your people really does pay off.


By John Norton, Head of Workplace Wellbeing, British Heart Foundation. For further advice, visit www.bhf.org.uk/how-you-can-help/health-at-work

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