Health editor's blog
Karin Mochan edits benhealth magazine for benenden health
Good news just in from Scotland, where official figures show that heart disease is on the wane north of the border. Coronary heart disease (CHD) is already known to be the biggest killer in the UK and the British Heart Foundation pinpoints Scotland and the north of England as areas with the highest death rates. Statistically, in terms of heart health, the south of England fares best.
Sadly this welcome turnaround comes far too late for my Glasgow-born grandfather, who died of a heart attack in his mid 60s, just months away from retirement. He was a nurse and he, more than anyone, should have been aware of the risk factors. Cardiovascular disease, including CHD, runs in families and as a case in point my granddad's own father suffered a fatal heart attack in his late 50s.
There's nothing to be done about our family histories, unfortunately, but what we can do is arm ourselves with information about heart disease. By understanding the warning signs and how to reduce our individual risk of developing it, we have a fighting chance to prevent history repeating itself.
When I turned 40 a few years ago, I was invited to attend a free NHS Health Check. These health MOTs take no more than 20 to 30 minutes at your GP surgery or local chemist's and are available to 40- to 74-year-olds living in England*.
Having had my blood pressure taken and a simple test to check my blood cholesterol, I was relieved to hear everything was in order. My cholesterol levels were slightly elevated but this was the “good” cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein or HDL) that doesn't pose a risk to health. My height and weight were also measured, to calculate my body mass index, and I was asked some questions about my all-important family history.
It was half an hour well spent as it gave me peace of mind, knowing that my risk factors for heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and diabetes had been assessed. CHD is often thought of as a man's disease and what happened to my granddad - and his father before him - seems to back that up. But I can't ignore the fact that it kills one in ten women, too.
So these five-yearly check-ups are a perfect opportunity to monitor my general health and the impact my lifestyle may be having on it. It's also a chance to seek expert advice about managing any obvious risk factors, as well as tips on diet and exercise.
When it comes to tackling heart disease, knowledge really is power.
Find out more
Check out the Healthy heart section on the benenden health website for information and interactive resources on heart health, heart disease and healthy living.
*If you live in Scotland and are aged 40 to 64, find out if your GP surgery is participating in the Keep Well health checks
In Wales, self-assessment tests are starting to be introduced (from late 2013). These health and wellbeing checks for the over-50s can be carried out online or on the phone.
There are currently no plans to introduce annual health checks in Northern Ireland, according to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, but the charity Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke is a good source of health information and helpful tips.