More than half of deaths worldwide are from non-infectious diseases like high blood pressure - meaning we can do something about them, says GP Melanie Wynne-Jones

Physical inactivity stiffens joints and weakens muscles © iStock

Physical inactivity stiffens joints and weakens muscles © iStock

High Blood Pressure

Why it’s bad?

Hypertension (having high blood pressure) rarely has symptoms, so it may be years before you realise that it’s damaged your heart, brain and other organs.

A quarter of women and a third of men are hypertensive by middle-age, and three- quarters of women by the time they’re 75. The cause isn’t fully understood, although it can run in families.

What you can do?

✔ Have your blood pressure checked at least every five years, more often if you have other risk factors and annually after the age of 75.

✔ Know your numbers – blood pressure should be lower than 140/90mmHg (130/80 if you have diabetes, kidney or cardiovascular disease).

✔ Tackle other lifestyle issues – diet, exercise, weight, cholesterol, alcohol and smoking.

Keep going

2mm added to blood pressure ups the risk of dying from stroke by 10%. But lifestyle changes and medication could bring it to your target in three months.

Cigarette Smoke

Cigarette smoke is linked to cardiovascular diseases © iStock

Cigarette smoke is linked to cardiovascular diseases © iStock

Why it’s bad?

If you smoke you have a 50% chance of dying from a smoking-related disease. It’s linked to cardiovascular diseases (CVD), such as heart attacks, strokes, mouth, lung and kidney cancers, osteoporosis, infertility and pregnancy complications.

Second-hand smoke also harms others, especially children. Stopping makes your skin look healthier, your teeth whiter and improves your sense of taste.

What you can do?

✔ Stop by yourself, with a buddy or with help from your GP, the NHS Stop Smoking helpline on 0300 123 1044 (England only) or nhs.uk.

✔ Use nicotine replacement therapy (patches, gum and so on) or prescription medication to reduce cravings.

✔ Get friends and family to support you, and develop new habits, such as going for a walk or putting the kettle on instead of lighting up.

✔ Use the money you save for special treats.

Keep going

After just two days your body is nicotine-free and your oxygen levels and blood pressure become normal. After three months your circulation will improve and by nine months your lung function could be 10% better.

Raised Blood Cholesterol

Why it’s bad?

Cholesterol and related fats are essential for life, but hyperlipidemia (very high levels, particularly LDL cholesterol) can narrow arteries and increase your CVD risk.

Lowering cholesterol levels can reduce this risk, and British researchers recently reported that four out of five postponed or prevented deaths in the mid 2000s were achieved by lifestyle changes rather than cholesterol-lowering medication (statins).

What you can do?

✔ Have a blood test as part of your NHS Health Check between the ages of 40 and 74 years, or ask your GP.

✔ Aim for UK-recommended total cholesterol levels (5mmol/l or below) and LDL cholesterol levels (3mmol/l or below) – or 4mmol/l and 2mmol/l if you have diabetes or are at high risk.

✔ Read labels, eat less than 20g of saturated fat daily (30g for men) and try to avoid trans fats (‘hydrogenated’ fats) altogether.

Keep going

By changing your diet you can cut your total cholesterol by 1mmol/l in three months. A cholesterol-lowering statin drug could cut your chances of a stroke by 30% if you’re at high risk of CVD.

Raised Blood-Sugar Levels

Why it’s bad?

Hyperglycaemia means high blood sugar (and could indicate pre-diabetes/impaired glucose tolerance). Type 1 diabetes is an immune-system disorder that stops your pancreas producing insulin, which helps you to store sugar (glucose).

Type 2 diabetes, which has increased by 60% in 10 years, now affects 3.3 million people in the UK, is linked to diet and obesity, and can lead to CVD, kidney failure, blindness and limb amputations. Worryingly, an estimated 590,000 of us may have undiagnosed diabetes.

What you can do?

✔ Seek medical advice if you notice you’re regularly thirsty, more tired, urinating frequently or suffering from blurred vision or weight loss.

✔ Keep your weight down and your waist circumference below 80cm (31.5in) for white, black and South Asian women, 90cm (35in) for South Asian men, and 94cm (37in) for white and black men.

✔ Read labels to avoid sugary foods and drinks – try to avoid or cut down on any ingredients ending in ‘-ose’ (eg, glucose).

Keep going

If you have impaired glucose tolerance, permanent lifestyle changes could reduce your risk of developing diabetes by a third and protect you from diabetes complications.

Obesity

Obesity is a big health risk © iStocj

Obesity is a big health risk © iStock

Why it’s bad?

Most UK adults are now overweight, and a quarter are obese – more than anywhere else in Europe. As well as diabetes, obesity increases our risk of developing hypertension and heart disease, breast, ovarian, colon and other cancers, gall bladder disease, osteoarthritis and pregnancy complications.

It also makes it harder to cope with (and recover from) operations, heart disease, lung disorders and many everyday activities.

What you can do?

✔ Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly.

✔ Aim to keep your body mass index (weight in kilograms divided by the square of your
height in metres) below 25.

✔ Modify your food and alcohol intake if necessary – are they influenced by time,
money, availability, other people’s needs, stress or even boredom?

✔ Consider joining a real or online slimming club, or using a smartphone app to track your diet.

✔ If your BMI is more than 30, ask your GP about NHS assistance in losing weight.

Keep going

Aim to lose 1lb a week and you could lose a stone in 3 months. Losing 5-10% of your ‘spare’ weight will significantly reduce your risk of dying prematurely from heart disease, stroke, diabetes or obesity-related cancers.

Physical Inactivity

Why it’s bad?

Inactivity stiffens our joints, weakens our muscles and impairs our balance, flexibility and strength. Aerobic exercise (which makes you breathless) increases oxygen flow and helps to ward off CVD, dementia, cancers and obesity – but only a third of women meet UK guidelines.

Weight-bearing activity, such as walking, improves bone strength and reduces falls. But more than half of us don’t achieve muscle strengthening guidelines, especially as we get older.

What you can do?

✔ Aim for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise five days a week, such as brisk walking, cycling, swimming, housework.

✔ Do muscle-strengthening exercise that will also improve your coordination and balance at least twice a week – try a session at the gym using the equipment, a game of tennis or team sports, Pilates, yoga or t’ai chi.

✔ Don’t sit if you can stand – aim to be on your feet for at least four hours a day.

✔ If you’re limited by disability, ask your GP how to adapt these recommendations.

Keep going

You could be running 5k in just nine weeks with the NHS Couch To 5k plan. But if you’re unfit or already have a medical condition, check with your doctor before starting any new form of exercise.

Poor Nutrition

Poor nutrition is a health threat © iStock

Poor nutrition is a health threat © iStock

Why it’s bad?

If you’re eating too little, have an eating disorder, a bowel condition such as coeliac disease (gluten intolerance) or choose the wrong foods, you may be missing out on iron and calcium and vitamins such as A, B, C, E and K, as well as proteins and other vital nutrients.

Deficiencies can damage our skin, bones, blood, nervous system and vital organs, and although we’re actually eating less overall, most households don’t match current guidelines for a healthy diet. Check out the eatwell plate at nhs.uk.

What you can do?

✔ Eat a rainbow of fruit, veg and pulses, aiming for at least five portions a day.

✔ Eat two portions a week of oily fish, such as salmon, fresh tuna or sardines. Pregnant women should avoid certain types.

✔ Don’t add salt to food and limit salt already present in foods to 6g (1tsp) daily.

✔ Seek medical advice if you have eating problems or think you need supplements.

Keep going

Foods containing less sugar and salt may taste bland at first, but you’ll get used to them in just a few weeks if you stick at it.