There are a number of health awareness campaigns each year that seek to raise awareness of conditions that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
Each October, National Cholesterol Month aims to raise awareness of the health implications of high cholesterol levels. The UK charity Heart UK’s campaign this October is called “Let’s Talk About Cholesterol”.
Cholesterol is a fat-like, waxy substance which is found in all the cells in your body. We need some cholesterol in our bodies for various reasons such as making vitamin D and hormones, and to help us digest food. About 80% of the cholesterol that our bodies need is made in the liver but we also take in cholesterol in foods such as meat, cheese and egg yolks.
There are two types of cholesterol – HDL cholesterol which assists the body to remove excess cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. When we have excess LDL cholesterol circulating in our blood, it tends to stick to the walls of our arteries forming a substance called plaque which becomes harder over time.
This process, known as atherosclerosis, affects our bodies in two main ways. Firstly, our arteries become narrower. This makes it harder for blood to flow, our heart has to pump harder to circulate blood around the body, and our heart is increasingly put under strain. Secondly, a blood clot can form over the plaque in our arteries. This can result in blockages in an artery or a blood clot that breaks away and travels to other parts of the body causing a stroke or heart attack.
Heart UK recommends that all adults should have their cholesterol checked. The only way to check whether you have high cholesterol is to take a simple blood test. It is important to remember that high cholesterol can affect anyone even if they eat a healthy diet, take regular exercise, are a healthy weight and are young.
High cholesterol can also have a genetic origin. An inherited condition called familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH) can lead to an individual developing extremely high cholesterol levels. Although FH affects around one in 250 people in the UK, over 90% of cases remain undiagnosed. It is vitally important to identify those who are affected as this condition can cause early heart disease.
In July 2021, a child-parent screening pilot programme was launched in seven areas in England to screen 30,000 children across England for the gene that causes FH. During the pilot, which will run over the next two years, parents of children between one and two years of age will be offered a heel prick blood test during their child’s routine immunisation appointment. If a child’s blood test identifies high cholesterol, both the child and their parents will be offered genetic testing to screen for the gene that causes FH.
Another major cause of heart attacks and strokes is high blood pressure. This issue was highlighted in September 2021 year by the Know Your Numbers campaign.
Camilla Wonnacott, associate in the Penningtons Manches Cooper clinical negligence team and a member of the cardiology specialist sub-group, comments: “We regularly talk to people who have been affected by a heart attack or stroke or who have lost a loved one to one of these conditions. It is very sad when one realises that some of these devastating events could have been prevented by screening, diagnosis and prompt treatment.”