McGuinness MEP: ‘The high cost of poor cardiovascular health is enormous’

The EU should better coordinate research on cardivascular disease and take action on industrial trans fatty acids, says Mairead McGuinness.

Mairead McGuinness is an Irish member of the European People’s Party (EPP), vice-president of the European Parliament, and co-chair of the MEP Heart Group. She answered questions put by EURACTIV’s Evan Lamos.

How important is the issue of cardiovascular disease in Europe?

What family has not been affected? My own family, my neighbour’s family, everyone in the community knows somebody who has been affected by heart disease.

It’s very common, it’s too common. We know that there are ways of reducing the levels of heart disease. We also know that it causes untold stress and difficulty and sadness for families and that we have the capacity to act on it. So it’s everywhere, it’s a huge problem, many die from it, others suffer long-term illness because of it. So, in a sense, we see it, we know it, we have to do something about it.

On the good news side, I think we’re more aware of cardiovascular problems and heart disease generally. We know that smoking, for example, is a real problem. That’s one of the things that’s causing this issue. We know that our lifestyle, what we eat, how active or inactive we are – we know that there’s genetic issues as well there – but there are many things about how we live, the activities we undertake as human beings that affect our heart and our cardiovascular system and that we can actually take action on.

What can be done to address genetic diseases like familial hypercholesterolemia?

What’s been fascinating for me is to learn about the fact that cholesterol and high levels of it can be genetic. And that even if you try very hard to live the perfect life in terms of diet and exercise, that there is a precondition within your genes that make you prone to high cholesterol, which ultimately could kill you.

So I was shocked to learn that one in 200 Europeans are impacted by this. And I guess that that one in 200, many of them do not know because they have not been tested. And I really do think that my awareness now of this fact pushes me to look back on my own familial gene code, if you like, to see, could I be one of those? Because at the moment, I don’t know.

So I need to be tested, I think other people who know that family members have had heart disease in the past probably need to go to their doctor and say, “look, could you check me out?”. Because if it is a genetic precondition, there is medication that can help. And therefore we need medical interventions.

But the first thing to know is, are you one of the many who are affected? As I look around here, there could be umpteen people walking around innocently thinking that they have the perfect heart, because they haven’t checked themselves out for this genetic precondition to high cholesterol levels, dangerously high, which ultimately will kill you.

What roles does the EU have in improving cardiovascular health?

I think of issues around research. I think we need and are coordinating better the research that’s happening in our member states around cardiovascular health. A key issue, because we don’t want duplication, we want good results.

I think we need to press the Commission for action on issues around what’s in our foods. For example, industrial produced trans fatty acids is a really big issue. Some individual countries are doing things, but perhaps we need the European Union, collectively, to take action on it.

You know, lobbying and pressure on the food industry does work, because we have seen that many, many big companies will react to the pressure. They want to engage with their customers and they know it makes good business sense for them to do that. But there are some areas where we may need the Commission to propose legislation so that there’s no ambiguity and that when we go out to shop, we can see on a label, or hopefully not see in a food stuff, these ingredients which actually damage our health.

So I think on those issues, yes Europe can be more proactive. Because it’s really important that we understand that not just because it’s good that people live longer and better quality lives, but for the European Union, with an ageing population, the costs of our ill health, if you like, the high cost of poor cardiovascular health is enormous for our hospitals and for the wider health services. And I think we owe it both, as a society, to our well-being and to our economic well-being, to take action. And I think those two parallel issues actually meet up very closely and ultimately will mean, I hope, that my children will have a better knowledge of better hearts, and live longer, better lives than perhaps previous generations or indeed myself will live.

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