04/11/2014 08:27 GMT | Updated 04/01/2015 05:59 GMT

Why Coronary Heart Disease Is Europe's Biggest Worry

Dementia made a lot of headlines last week when it was revealed that it was the leading cause of death amongst women last year.

In England and Wales more than 30,000 women's deaths were attributed to dementia and Alzheimer's, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.

But for men and women, coronary heart disease (CHD) is still the single biggest killer with 64,000 lives lost in 2013.

Worryingly, the numbers across Europe are even starker with nearly 1.8 million deaths a year. This means that for every five deaths within the continent, one will be from CHD.

This potentially fatal condition occurs when the arteries that supply the heart muscle with oxygen become narrowed by a build-up of fatty material potentially leading to blood clots and fatal heart attacks. Risk factors include things like smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise.

We've made good progress in the UK to fight this disease and research funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) has helped to develop new tests and treatments that have contributed to reducing the number of deaths considerably.

But there is still a long way to go if we want to narrow the unacceptable gap in mortality rates across Europe, and within some nations of Europe.

In parts of Eastern Europe mortality rates for CHD can be three or four times higher than they are here in the UK.

This week I have started a new role as President of the European Heart Network, a strong alliance of heart foundations with members in 24 countries. This will run alongside my current role at the BHF.

My first engagement as President will be meeting members from the Central and Eastern European Countries group.

I will be working with colleagues from these nations to share knowledge and help them to reduce the number of people dying from this condition.

In 2012, the World Health Organization set targets to reduce preventable deaths from non-communicable diseases by 25 per cent by 2025.

If the UK and other European nations are to meet this target for CHD then we need to do more to raise awareness and promote health prevention policies.

For example, smoking remains a major public health issue in Europe. We know that smoking can single-handedly almost double your risk of a heart attack, and stop smoking initiatives have helped to reduce smoking rates.

But there are still millions of smokers across Europe playing Russian roulette with their health.

And factors such as poor diet and lack of exercise have contributed to high obesity levels in Europe.

In the UK almost two thirds of UK adults are overweight or obese which paints a worrying picture.

We've worked hard here to introduce front-of-pack labelling to food and drink products to help people make informed choices about what they're consuming and make improvements to their diets.

But the UK's voluntary scheme has come under threat from some who see improved consumer information as a threat to competition.

And few adults in European countries participate in enough physical activity.

The important message is that CHD is preventable in a lot of cases and this was emphasised last week by an interesting study that emerged from Caerphilly, in South Wales.

The research, which was part-funded by the British Heart Foundation, studied the lifestyles of 2,500 men over a 35-year period, one of the longest studies of its kind.

The results found that those men that followed four or five health steps, including exercise, eating a balanced diet, not smoking, maintaining a healthy bodyweight and consuming alcohol within recommended guidelines, were 60% less likely to have heart attacks and strokes.

Some of these men are now in their mid-nineties and are still contributing to health research that will hopefully help millions of people in the future to lead a healthier lifestyle and protect their hearts.