UK guidelines recommend that all people aged 40 or more should have a routine cardiovascular risk assessment. A ‘risk factor calculator’ is commonly used by doctors and nurses to assess the risk of you developing a cardiovascular disease such as: heart attack, angina, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease. Treatment is recommended if you have a high risk.
What is cardiovascular disease?
Cardiovascular diseases are diseases of the heart or blood vessels that are caused by atheroma. Patches of atheroma are like small fatty lumps that develop within the inside lining of arteries (blood vessels). Atheroma is also known as ‘hardening of the arteries’. A patch of atheroma makes an artery narrower, which can reduce the blood flow through the artery. Sometimes blood clots form over a patch of atheroma. Depending on the site of the atheroma the diseases that it causes include heart attack, angina, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease.
Who should have their cardiovascular health risk assessed?
- All adults aged 40 or over.
- Adults of any age who have:
- A strong family history of early cardiovascular disease. This means if you have a father or brother who developed heart disease or a stroke before they were 55, or in a mother or sister before they were 65.
- A first degree relative (parent, brother, sister, child) with a serious hereditary lipid disorder. For example, familial hypercholesterolaemia or familial combined hyperlipidaemia. These diseases are uncommon.
If you already have a cardiovascular disease or diabetes then you do not need to be screened. This is because you are already known to be in the high risk group.
What does the screening involve?
A doctor or nurse will ask you have any current lifestyle risk factors that increase your risk of developing a cardiovascular disease. These include: smoking, obesity, a poor diet, lack of physical activity, and drinking a lot of alcohol. You will then have a blood test to check your blood cholesterol and glucose (sugar) level. Your blood pressure will be measured. A score is calculated based on several of these risk factors, your age and sex. An adjustment to the score is made for certain other risk factors such as strong family history and ethnic origin.
What does the assessment score mean?
You are given a score as a % chance. So, for example, if your score is 30% this means that you have a 30% chance of developing a cardiovascular disease within the next 10 years. This is the same as saying a 30 in 100 chance (or a 3 in 10 chance). In other words, in this example, 3 in 10 people with the same risk factors that you have will develop a cardiovascular disease within the next 10 years. Note: the score cannot say if you will be one of the three. It cannot predict what will happen to each individual person. It just gives you the odds.
You are said to have a:
- high risk – if your score is 20% or more. (That is, a 2 in 10 chance or more of developing a cardiovascular disease within the next 10 years.)
- moderate risk – if your score is 10-20% (between 1 in 10 and 2 in 10 chance).
- low risk – if your score is less than 10% (less than a 1 in 10 chance).
What treatments are available to reduce the risk?
If you are at high risk
If you are at high risk of developing a cardiovascular disease then drug treatment is usually advised along with advice to tackle any lifestyle issues. This usually means:
- Drug treatment to lower your cholesterol level, usually with a statin drug. No matter what your current cholesterol level, drug treatment is advised. The aim is to reduce the level by 25% or to get the level under 4 mmol/l – whichever is the biggest reduction. See leaflet called ‘Cholesterol’ for details.
- Drug treatment to lower blood pressure if your blood pressure is high. This is even if your blood pressure is just mildly high. See leaflet called ‘High Blood Pressure’ for details.
- A daily low dose of aspirin – depending on your age and other factors. Aspirin helps to prevent blood clots from forming on patches of atheroma. See leaflet called ‘Aspirin to Prevent Blood Clots’ for details.
- Where relevant, to encourage you to tackle lifestyle risk factors. This means to:
- stop smoking if you smoke.
- eat a healthy diet.
- keep your weight and waist in check.
- take regular physical activity.
- cut back if you drink a lot of alcohol.
You may be offered a referred to specialist services. For example, to a dietician to help you to lose weight and eat a healthy diet, to a specialist ‘stop smoking clinic’, or to a supervised exercise programme.
What if I am at moderate or low risk?
If you are not in the high risk category, it does not mean you have no risk – just a lesser risk. Drug treatment is not usually prescribed. However, you may be able to reduce whatever risk you do have even further by any relevant changes in lifestyle (as described in the above paragraph).
Some people with a moderate risk buy a low dose statin drug from a pharmacy to lower their cholesterol level. (Statin drugs are available on prescription and funded by the NHS if your risk is high. However, you need to buy them if your risk is not in the high category.)