Heart disease is the UK's biggest killer, but it doesn't have to be

My family has always been prone to heart attacks because of their diets

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The Independent Online

My cousin had a heart attack this week. He’s not alone. Some  62,000 men and 38,000 women have one in England per year. Paolo’s experience is a warning to us all.

It’s painful to chronicle my family’s dire history of heart disease, but I want others to learn from us. If just one of you goes to get checked out, or changes your lifestyle, then it’s worth it.

My father, Edwin Richard Hatfield, died when I was 15 months-old. He had a heart attack driving a van for the Marcantonio ice cream family, to whom we are related. Eddie, who survived being shot mid-air over Arnhem, was 41. He’d had chest pains, but thought they were indigestion.

My ma remarried Eddie’s brother, Herbert Cyril. (The Hatfields didn’t do exotic). Stepdad/uncle Bert also died of a heart attack (aged 56) when I was 13. I witnessed it: the stubborn ignoring of chest pains; the casual reference to his arm tingling; watching that arm turn alarmingly purple; his wink at me as the ambulance took him away for the last time. He too thought he’d thought he had indigestion.

Four more Hatfield brothers died of heart attacks. At least Aunty Joyce, their sister, made it to her late 70s. None took a day’s exercise in their working-class lives. They lived on fry-ups, lard, suet and full-fat milk tea with heaps of sugar. And they all smoked. Like bloody chimneys. Ain’t hindsight grand?

My Italian family gave me stoic humour and hope. Surely that delicious cuisine - the olive oil, red wine, fish, fruit and vegetables - would see me right? It was a theory sorely tested by the sudden death of my uncle Donato in Boston, just as our plane touched down there for a five-week “cheer us up” summer holiday. Donato often had “indigestion”.

His son, my lovely cousin Pompeo, was 52 when he had a massive coronary two years ago. He’s alive only because he was already in hospital for a knee op. No chest pains, but he’s very overweight. Pomp ignored the advice: eat less, move more!

Paolo’s overweight too. He used to smoke and doesn’t exercise. Last weekend, he thought he had “indigestion”. On Monday he was making pizza dough when his arm tingled. He called the ambulance himself. If he had not, doctors said, he would be dead.

Coincidentally this past week, a major study was published in by the American College of Cardiology. It tracked 20,000 men aged 45-79 for 11 years, and found there were five simple suggestions that would decrease chances of a heart attack by up to 86 per cent. Just doing one would help.

We know this stuff: (above all) don't smoke; Walk or cycle for 40 minutes per day; Exercise at least one hour per week; keep your waist below 37 inches; Drink alcohol in moderation; and eat fruits, vegetables, nuts, low-fat dairy products, whole grains etc.

Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in the UK (and worldwide). In the UK, 2.7m of us live with it. But it need not be a killer. Change your life to embrace the tips above. Plus, if you experience chest pains and your arm tingles, call that ambulance immediately. And Paolo, please get well soon.