THE BLOG

The Cholesterol Conundrum - How Heart Health Concerns All in the UK

26/06/2014 15:11 BST | Updated 26/08/2014 10:59 BST

Cholesterol is the single greatest risk factor for coronary heart disease (CHD), responsible for nearly half of all heart disease-related deaths in the UK. Cholesterol is also a major risk factor in stroke, contributing to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease associated with diabetes and obesity.

Nearly 10 years ago, in 2005, cardiovascular disease (CVD), including heart disease and stroke, killed over 120,000 people in Britain - the equivalent to the population of a city the size of St. Albans. Recent figures have shown the situation has escalated with almost half of all adults carrying dangerously high levels of cholesterol

The National Diet & Nutrition Survey found that 48 per cent of the adult population in the UK has blood cholesterol levels above the healthy level, with figures rising to three out of four women - 75 per cent - aged 50 to 64, and 59 per cent of men in the same age group.

Furthermore, the death rate from CVD and CHD in Britain is one of the highest in Western Europe. Only Ireland and Finland have a higher mortality rate than the UK. CVD kills more men and women in Britain than any other disease and, contrary to common perception, is responsible for nine times more deaths in women than breast cancer.

The real tragedy is that for most people unhealthy levels of cholesterol can be avoided by simply maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle. The National Diet and Nutrition survey points to poor diet and a lack of exercise as the main causes behind high cholesterol levels, with many people deluding themselves about how much physical activity they do. High levels of the dangerous form of cholesterol - LDL - are linked to trans-fats, which are used in processed foods, and the saturated fat of dairy products and fatty red meat.

However, there are some people who cannot manage their cholesterol levels through diet and lifestyle alone as they suffer from an inherited form of high cholesterol, which can lead to heart attack or stroke in their 20s or 30s. While some people are aware that there is a strong link between high cholesterol and heart disease, they don't think to have their cholesterol level checked. If people have a family history of high cholesterol, stroke or heart attack, they should have their cholesterol tested at 20, or even younger if a doctor advises it. Even if there is no family history of heart disease, people should still get their cholesterol tested around the age of 40, and then at least every five years or so if at risk or their levels are high.

Oat beta-glucans are one of the top ways to knock down your cholesterol number. In addition to consuming oat beta-glucans, a good way to help lower your cholesterol and hopefully prevent heart disease is to eat a diet low in saturated fat and to eat foods that are rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, like Omega-3 fatty acids. Research has shown that EPA and DHA Omega-3 fatty acids can help lower blood pressure in people with hypertension, and help maintain healthy triglyceride levels.

Studies have shown that the foods people should be eating are just as important as those they should be avoiding. Incorporating certain foods into a diet such as oats, nuts, fibre, grains, oily fish or sources of algae DHA and healthy oils - such as olive and rapeseed, can actually lower cholesterol levels and therefore reduce the risk of heart disease and strokes. People should switch from consuming saturated and trans-fats, replacing them with healthier fats like the ones found in olive oil and fatty fish such as salmon or trout to be a step closer to healthier hearts. If you're not eating oily fish, at least twice a week, or getting enough oats into your diet, there are always fish oil and oat beta glucan supplements to give you that extra boost.

It is estimated that approximately 30,000 more deaths can be prevented annually in the UK by improving lifestyle choices which include dietary changes, and over half of these deaths could be averted by focusing on prevention of heart attacks and strokes. By monitoring what people eat, we could go a long way in managing heart health more efficiently.