Heart disease is the world's biggest killer - but do you know the signs and symptoms?

It accounts for around 8.9 million deaths globally each year.

man with heart disease
Heart disease kills 8.9 million people worldwide every year. (Getty Images)

While the UK’s biggest killer is now dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, did you know the leading cause of deaths globally is heart disease?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says it is ‘by far’ the biggest cause of deaths, accounting for around 8.9 million deaths globally each year.

Ischaemic heart disease, which is the term given to heart problems cause by narrowed coronary arteries, was previously the leading cause of death in the UK and is still the biggest killer of British men.

Read more: Britain's biggest killers: UK's leading causes of death (Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read)

In the most recent data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 38,730 men in the UK died from heart disease in 2022 accounting for 13.3% of all male deaths recorded last year.

But what causes heart disease and how can you spot the signs and symptoms?

man having a heart attack
Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death for men in the UK. (Getty Images)

What is heart disease?

Ischaemic heart disease or coronary heart disease is a condition that occurs when your coronary arteries become narrowed due to a build up of fatty materials, which means that no enough oxygen-rich blood can get to your heart.

The fatty material is called atheroma and if a piece of this breaks off, it can cause a blood clot which can block the supply of blood to your heart and cause a heart attack.

The British Heart Foundation estimates that 11% of British men and 9% of British women are currently diagnosed with some form of heart disease.

Causes of heart disease

According to the NHS, your risk of developing the fatty material that can line your coronary arteries (a process called atherosclerosis) is higher if you:

  • Have high blood pressure

  • Smoke

  • Have high cholesterol

  • Do not exercise regularly

  • Have diabetes

  • Have high levels of lipoprotein

  • Are obese or overweight

  • Have a family history of heart disease, with a further increased risk if you have a male relative under 55 with heart disease or a female relative under 65

Signs and symptoms of heart disease

The British Heart Foundation says that there are 11 signs that could indicate a person has heart disease. These include:

  1. Chest pain: Pain in the chest that feels heavy, tight or like a lot of pressure is the sign of a heart attack and you should call 999 immediately.

  2. Angina: This is chest pain that occurs when you exert yourself but goes away when you are relaxed. If you experience chest pain make an appointment with your GP.

  3. Chest pain and nausea: Feeling sick along with chest pain can be a sign that something is wrong.

  4. Indigestion-type pain: While indigestion and a heart attack can feel similar, heart attack pain won’t likely go away like indigestion will. Call 111 if you’re confused whether or not you have indigestion.

  5. Chest pain and sweat: If you are feeling chest pains and sweating without having done any exercise, it’s time to call an ambulance.

  6. Leg pain: See a doctor if you have a gripping or cramping sensation in your calves.

  7. Arm pain: If you have pain going down your arm, especially your left arm, that could be a sign of a heart attack.

  8. Jaw or back pain: If you are feeling severe jaw or back pain that doesn’t go away, call 999.

  9. Choking sensation: Angina can sometimes make it feel like you are choking or there is a tightness in the throat.

  10. Swollen ankles: Can be a sign of heart failure.

  11. Irregular heartbeat: If your heart is beating faster than normal or erratically and you are experiencing blackouts, make an appointment with your GP.

man exercising
Regular exercise can help limit the risk of having a heart attack. (Getty Images)

Heart disease treatment

Once diagnosed, heart disease can usually be managed effectively with a combination of lifestyle changes, medicine and surgery, according to the NHS.

If you are a smoker, stop smoking as this can quickly reduce your chance of having a heart attack.

Eating healthier and doing more regular exercise is also recommended. Medicines that reduce your blood pressure or widen your arteries are also recommended, and a doctor will prescribe the medicine that works best for you.

For more information or for advice, you can contact the British Heart Foundation’s free nurse helpline on 0808 802 1234 Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.