Heart and Circulatory Diseases: Premature Deaths

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons am 3:53 pm ar 22 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Dean Russell Dean Russell Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art 3:53, 22 Chwefror 2024

May I send my best wishes to the right hon. Gentleman’s son? From my experience, his son is in absolutely the right place, and I hope he has a swift recovery. I echo the right hon. Gentleman’s comments—the staff at Harefield were exemplary at every stage of the process.

Again, I put on record—for my own benefit, rather selfishly—my gratitude to the East of England Ambulance Service, Watford General Hospital and Harefield Hospital, but also the cardiac rehabilitation teams. The experience of being in hospital and having a heart attack was a matter of days, but that of the rehabilitation, exercise programmes and diet changes—all the things that are so important—was a matter of months. I can talk about it not so much as having saved my life, but it has changed my life. I cannot say that I am pleased that it happened, but I am pleased that it happened the way it did, if that makes sense, in making a difference.

I recognise that my experience is not unique, however lucky I am in the experience I have had and the subsequent opportunity to use the platform of Parliament to raise awareness of these conditions and the work of the British Heart Foundation and the NHS. It just felt very apt to have this debate this month because it is World Heart Month. Back-Bench debates are an opportunity to have these conversations and to raise concerns.

Cardiovascular diseases include conditions that affect the heart and circulation, including high blood pressure, stroke and vascular dementia, which I will refer to collectively in the debate as CVD. Over the past six decades, huge strides have been made in improving outcomes for those affected by CVD, with the annual number of deaths falling by around half since the 1960s in part thanks to decades of medical and scientific breakthroughs. That is why research is just so essential.

Today, more than 7 million people are living with heart and circulatory diseases in the UK, and they cause more than a quarter of all UK deaths. In 2022 alone, over 39,000 people in England died prematurely of cardiovascular conditions. That is, on average, 750 people a week. Just to provide a sense of scale, that would fill the Chamber two times over. Despite the premature death rate for CVD continuing to fall by 11% between 2012 and 2019, sadly it remains one of the UK’s biggest killers. The British Heart Foundation is doing a lot of work to raise awareness of waiting lists going up for heart tests and treatment. We need to ensure that we tackle that head on. There is no room for manoeuvre on this. Let us keep moving forward to make a difference.

More analysis is needed. From lifesaving research by the British Heart Foundation, we know that the causes of premature deaths from CVD are multifaceted and complex. The NHS long-term care plan intends to look at many of those areas, but I call on the Government to be bold and consider co-ordinated action to address the issue in three ways. I urge them to prioritise heart care within the NHS to accelerate vital care; to ensure better protection from heart disease by addressing the drivers and underlying health conditions, such as obesity and smoking; and finally, to create a research and development ecosystem for breakthroughs, treatments and cures.

I welcome the significant work already under way through the Government’s major conditions strategy and the inclusion of cardiovascular disease in it. The interim report, published last summer by the Department of Health and Social Care, made clear the scale and urgency of the Government’s priority to address this issue. Urgency is absolutely key here. Around 80% of cases of CVD are attributed to modifiable risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity, poor diet and smoking, making CVD largely preventable through a number of lifestyle choices.

Politically, I am not one who thinks that the state should intervene and stop people from being able to enjoy their lives, but I think education is key. Education can come through many different means, including engagement with the NHS and GPs providing advice. It is not about the state stopping people making lifestyle choices, but it is fair enough to let them know what those lifestyle choices might lead to, and what can make a big difference to them and their family.

Nearly two thirds of adults in the UK, around 64%, are overweight or living with obesity. Up to 8 million people have either undiagnosed or uncontrolled high blood pressure. From my own personal experience, I admit that I knew I was not going to be running in the Olympics any time soon—I cannot exactly describe myself as an Adonis—but while I knew I was slightly overweight, I thought I would be okay. I thought that these things do not happen to somebody at the age of 47. Like most of us, I thought these things happen to somebody else. That is the way our minds work. This was a wake-up call for me, and that is why I want to make a wake-up call to others from this wonderful platform of the House of Commons Chamber. Do not assume that it is all okay. Get checked out and make sure that you watch out for the signs.

I therefore welcome the Government’s ambition to halve childhood obesity by 2030, and to help adults reach a healthier weight through a range of preventive measures to empower people to take control of their own health. Of course, everyone has different ways of doing that. I will not share my own dietary habits, because I am sure that some dietician will watch this and tell me I have got it totally wrong, but I have lost about 2 stone in the past four or five months. I did not do it by fasting—I know the Prime Minister does his fast each week, so I will not comment on that—or by adopting a fad diet; I simply made some small changes in my lifestyle and the way I live my life.

Like many people, we as Members of Parliament work long hours. My father was a lorry driver, and I am proud of the long hours he worked and the work that he did to bring me up. Our job here is not particularly physical, but it does involve long hours and is quite sedentary at times, and the same probably applies to the jobs of a great many people throughout the UK. Being mindful of that, and going for a walk and getting a bit of exercise, can make a big difference.

The NHS long-term plan sets out the Government’s determination to prevent 150,000 heart attacks, strokes and dementia cases over the course of 10 years. I welcome the focus on early intervention to help people live longer, healthier lives, but we all know that smoking is still the single leading behavioural cause of preventable death in this country. I very much support the Government’s desire for a smoke-free generation by 2030, and I am glad they are pressing on with a tobacco and vapes Bill to ensure that children who are now 14 or younger—that is, anyone born on or after 1 April 2009—can never legally be sold tobacco products.

Addressing lifestyle concerns and identifying underlying conditions earlier could help to prevent tens of thousands of heart attacks and strokes, and could support the Government’s ambition to increase healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035, but I think it means more than that. To me, it means that a child will grow up seeing their father or their mother. It means that friends and families can see a loved one reach the age at which they can call that person a grandparent, or that person can see them graduate. This, for me, is not just about Government policy; it is about the impact on real people who can be helped to lead a positive life.

When we talk about heart attacks, heart disease and the other issues we are discussing today, we are of course talking about premature deaths, but for most people who are affected those conditions constitute a restriction on their lives, and I want to ensure that we improve that situation for everyone in the country. I am proud to say that the UK continues to lead the way in medical research, establishing innovative methods of early diagnosis and effective treatment.

As many Members will know, I campaigned vigorously with West Hertfordshire Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust to secure the necessary funding for the new hospital in Watford, and it was a proud and important moment when we did. One reason I supported that so strongly was the incredible work I saw being done at Watford General Hospital, especially in relation to the virtual hospital programme. It has led the way in showing that there are other ways of supporting people’s health, particularly at home, and adopting the idea of using technology and data to help improve people’s lifestyles. The beauty of the modern age is that many apps can give people guidance on their health. They have Apple watches or Fitbits or whatever else is out there; I do not want to go down the route of one particular brand. We are now able to track so much more of our health, but I think we need more education on what that data means. We can all see our heart rates, but what is the actual impact on people’s lives?

Virtual care is important in this regard, but—I will not go too far down this route, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I think it is for a different debate—I have long argued for what I call data donation. At present someone who sadly loses their life may donate an organ, but if we could donate our lifestyle data throughout our lives, the NHS and other organisations could start asking themselves whether they could, for instance, cure cancer by using that data, which would be anonymised, with all the necessary checks and balances to ensure that it was done well.

I am conscious of the time, and I am sure that I am going over my allocated period, but I want to highlight the fact that despite all the developments, CVD continues to have an impact on the wider economy, costing an estimated £21 billion annually in England alone. As I say, behind every figure is a person or a family who have been deeply affected by these conditions. As part of this process, I was fortunate to work with the House of Commons Chamber engagement team, who reached out to constituents across the country to share their own experiences in preparation for this debate. I believe that the correspondence should be in the Library; if not, I will make sure that it is shared with colleagues and put online. One respondent really moved me. They said that their daughter

“has half a working heart;
she’s had two open heart surgeries and will need another. If it hadn’t been detected early, she wouldn’t be with us today.”

That is a life, an ambition and a future that is still there because of the support that has been given.

I know that I am doing a bit of a plug for the British Heart Foundation today, but one of the other comments, which rings true with my experience, was that the

“British Heart Foundation has a brilliant website for facts, and the consultant team we are under at our local hospital are fantastic.”

There were many quotes from people sharing very similar stories. A common concern, though, was about aftercare following surgery or medical treatment and the effects that people’s conditions have had on them mentally and socially. From my own experience, I have to admit that I suddenly started to feel twinges all the time and think, “Is there something wrong with me? Is it happening again?”

My experience is that within two weeks of having a heart attack, I promised that I would go to a local event; I did not want to let people down. I remember going to it on a searing hot day. I was genuinely frightened about going out in the heat with people and not knowing whether my body would still work in the way I hoped it would. I am glad I did it, because once I had gone through the experience of being there and realising that I could still be me, I was able to overcome that and continue to work as safely and as best I could as I recovered.

However, not everybody gets that opportunity. When someone has had a physical illness, particularly when it affects the heart, it is easy for them to suddenly worry that they do not have control over themselves, and they do not know what might happen next. I must admit that there have been many times when something has twinged and I have thought, “Is this a heart attack again?” Thankfully, it has not been, but aftercare is absolutely essential. We can fix the body, but helping to support the mind through that psychological process is absolutely essential. I know that colleagues in the House will have far more powerful stories about their experiences than mine, and I look forward to hearing them later.

This is about multidisciplinary care that does not end when the patient leaves the hospital. It is about supporting their full recovery and helping them with some lifestyle changes. I have to admit that the cardiac rehabilitation team I worked with were phenomenal. When I was extremely concerned, they would put my mind at rest, which meant that I was better physically and mentally. I therefore ask the Minister whether consideration will be given to offering counselling services and mental health support to those affected by heart and circulatory conditions.

As I have said, heart and circulatory diseases cause a quarter of all deaths in England, amounting to over 140,000 each year, 480 a day or one every three minutes. Sadly, in the time that I have spoken today, five people will have lost their lives. I therefore call for urgent action to do more to protect our hearts. By prioritising the right action and supercharging the progress that has been made on addressing heart and circulatory diseases, we can improve the nation’s health, grow the economy and give people hope for a brighter, healthier future.