British Heart Foundation

Understanding heart attack risks

Press Release   •   Jan 12, 2012 08:46 GMT

Our Associate Medical Director Dr Mike Knapton explains the science behind this week's health stories.

The new year is not even a fortnight old and we’ve already had a glut of research stories about what can harm or help your heart. The most recent heart attack risks are apparently TV sets, cars and grieving for a relative who has died.

You’d be forgiven for thinking a heart attack is lurking around every corner.

Well, that really isn’t the case at all. I think I should start by describing what a heart attack actually is. When your coronary arteries get clogged with fatty material, known as atheroma, they get narrower and the blood cannot flow as freely. That in itself is not good news but things can get a lot worse. A piece of that fatty material can break off and cause a clot to form in your blood vessels. The heart muscle is starved of oxygenated blood; you’re having a heart attack.

Now the science is out of the way, I’ll tackle Wednesday’s study which showed owning a car or TV, or both, increases your risk of a heart attack. For starters, don’t be fooled into thinking owning those luxury items causes heart attacks. Fatty material in your arteries does.

It’s about investing in a healthy lifestyle now, to ensure a healthy future

What this research really highlights is that if you own a car or TV you’re perhaps more likely to lead a sedentary lifestyle. Maybe you drive when you could walk, or watch Eastenders when you could be outside playing football with the grandchildren. If you don’t stay active, you’re more at risk of these fatty deposits building up in your arteries.

Tuesday’s story about the effect of grief and bereavementincreasing heart attack risk is a different kettle of fish altogether. Here we’re looking at grief, or extreme stress, as a trigger for a heart attack. In other words, your coronary arteries have to already be clogged with atheroma before the trigger in order for you to have a heart attack. Heart healthy individuals aren’t likely to have heart attacks because someone close to them has died.

We all lose a loved one at some point in our lives and while bereavement is inevitable and can be stressful, there is lots of help available including bereavement counselling to ease the pain of grief.

Lowering heart attack risk isn’t really about selling your 40in widescreen or beloved convertible. It’s about investing in a healthy lifestyle now, to ensure a healthy future, which means staying active; eating a balanced diet; staying a healthy weight; and not smoking.


Our vision couldn’t be much more ambitious - a world where people no longer die prematurely from heart disease.

When you have a vision that big in mind, it helps to set some milestones along the way. That’s why we’ve set a number of objectives to guide our day-to-day work.

But we can’t do any of it alone. We are working alongside government, other health charities, healthcare professionals and thousands of dedicated supporters to beat heart disease. Everybody has a part to play.