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Diagnosis is key to preventing heart attacks and strokes

12:00am | & Health

More than 9,000 heart attacks and at least 14,000 strokes could be prevented over the next three years through a more integrated approach designed to flag up their key causes.

That’s the belief of the NHS and Public Health England (PHE), who are working together to achieve the ambitious targets. They are confident they can do so through better detection and effective management of three key causes of heart attacks and strokes – high blood pressure, high cholesterol and atrial fibrillation.

Between them, heart attacks and strokes account for one in four premature deaths in the UK, but more ‘joined-up’ working between NHS organisations and local authorities could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective management of the main conditions which cause them.

Sir Bruce Keogh, National Medical Director of NHS England, said: “Cardiovascular disease kills more people in this country than anything else. We know how to treat the resulting heart attacks and stroke, but everyone knows that prevention is better than cure. Prevention of these devastating consequences is everybody’s business from our schools, to the food and tobacco industries, to local authorities and the NHS.”

One of the biggest risk factors for heart attack and stroke is high blood pressure (hypertension), often called the ‘invisible killer’ because it can present no symptoms and people can be completely unaware they have it. An estimated 5.5 million people in England alone are living with undiagnosed high blood pressure, which can be easily detected through a 5-minute check at a GP surgery, local pharmacy or even using a cheap and widely available home blood pressure monitor.

Similarly, around half-a-million people in England are thought to be living with atrial fibrillation – an irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate often linked to high blood pressure. Again, it usually has no obvious symptoms, but both conditions significantly increase the risk of stroke, heart attack, dementia and limb amputation.

New analysis by Public Health England shows that optimal diagnosis and treatment of people with high blood pressure could prevent up to 9,710 heart attacks and 14,500 strokes over the next three years. Achieving the same for people with atrial fibrillation could prevent up to 14,220 strokes over the same period. As well as the obvious benefits for the people concerned, it could save the NHS up to £515m.

Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive of Public Health England, said: “High blood pressure is the invisible killer. We want people to be as familiar with their blood pressure numbers as they are with their credit card PIN or their height. Too many people are still living in poor health and dying from a largely preventable disease.”

NHS England has already set up 44 Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships (STPs) across the country, in which the NHS and local authorities work closely together to improve health and social care in their area. Now all 44 STPs have been alerted to the significant prevention opportunity for heart attacks and strokes and urged to adopt strategies such as routine checks for high blood pressure and atrial fibrillation. Initiatives such as testing in community settings or the workplace will also boost detection rates.

As more people are tested for the three major causes of heart attacks and strokes, detection rates will rise and effective treatments can be implemented to prevent them happening. People will also be encouraged to take up the offer of a free NHS Health Check at their local GP surgery, available every five years to anyone aged between 40 and 74.

As well as supporting people to reduce lifestyle risk factors, this ‘health MoT test’ provides a systematic way of identifying people with undiagnosed high-risk conditions like high blood pressure and atrial fibrillation. Currently only half of all eligible people take up the offer.

If you are worried you might have high blood pressure or atrial fibrillation, make an appointment to get yourself checked at your local surgery. Many local pharmacies also offer free blood pressure tests, or you can buy a home monitor for around £20 and keep a regular check on your blood pressure numbers.

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