50 years of pioneering progress

Since the British Heart Foundation was established in 1961, there have been major advances in the treatment and prevention of heart disease. Heart surgery has become commonplace and thousands of people are healthier and living longer thanks to new drugs. The BHF plays a vital role in funding heart research in the UK, which in turn has an impact around the world. Many of today's new drugs and treatments might never have been possible without the help of the BHF

THE 1960s :-

- High blood pressure treatment -

Effective drug treatments were refined in the 1960s, improving the condition of patients with high blood pressure. The progressive development of new drugs and improved awareness of the risks associated with high blood pressure have led to a reduction in heart failure, strokes and coronary heart disease.

- Open heart surgery made possible -

Thanks to the development of the heart-lung by-pass machine that takes over the function of the heart and lungs, open heart surgery became a practical and successful form of treatment for people suffering from heart disease. Today, open heart surgery has become 'routine' in hospitals which perform cardiac surgery.

- Pacemakers begin to transform lives -

Implantable pacemakers first became available in the mid 1960s. Their role is to stimulate an excessively slow heart rate which causes breathlessness and sometimes life-threatening loss of consciousness. Over the years, their use has been refined enabling thousands of heart patients to enjoy a better quality of life and return to active work.

- Life-saving heart transplants -

Cardiac transplantation became feasible and developed rapidly as a successful technique in suitable patients. It is, however, limited by the shortage of donor organs.

- New drugs reduce heart attack risk -

Multi-purpose drugs - with the capability of controlling numerous heart problems - were first introduced. Called 'beta-blockers', they are extremely effective in slowing down a fast heart rate, reducing the heart's need for oxygen, preventing angina attacks and lowering blood pressure. And they can reduce the risk of a heart attack in those who have already suffered from one.
The use of aspirin and more recently of statins to lower cholesterol has also been of benefit.

THE 1970s :-

- Echocardiography -

The new technique of echocardiography was first used to look for heart defects - a 'non-invasive' diagnostic method that uses high frequency sound waves (ultra sound) to build up a 'picture' of the heart's structure and movement

- Safer surgery for heart patients -

A technique to widen narrowed arteries - balloon angioplasty - was first introduced. This procedure involves introducing an inflatable balloon into an artery through the groin, and moving it to the narrowing using X-ray guidance. The balloon is inflated to widen the narrowed area. This technique has now replaced open heart surgery in the treatment of some patients.

- Hypertension and cardiovascular disease -

Although it has long been recognised that high blood pressure is a major risk factor for overall mortality, it was during the 1970s that several famous studies highlighted the increased risk of coronary heart disease and stroke among hypertensive patients. During the early 1980s it was confirmed that coronary heart disease and stroke were reduced by treatment of high blood pressure.

THE 1980s :-

- Lives saved by new use of Aspirin -

Research discovered that a drug called streptokinase has 'clot busting' abilities The combination of this drug and aspirin is responsible for halving the death rate from heart attacks when they are treated in hospital.

- Effective treatment of heart failure -

Heart failure causes symptoms resulting from reduced blood flow to the muscles and organs and through accumulation of fluid in various parts of the body. Symptoms may include severe fatigue, breathlessness and ankle swelling. The emergence of drugs, particularly ACE inhibitors (the benefits of which include a relaxing effect on the arteries, thus reducing the work of the heart,) have led to an improved quality of life for countless heart patients.

- Improved treatment for irregular heart beats -

Some disturbances of heart rhythm cause the heart to beat too quickly. Although sometimes no more than a nuisance, attacks may be life threatening. One of the most significant advances in the 1980s was treatment through the introduction of ablation techniques. A thin tube called a catheter is placed in the heart and gently warmed by radio frequency energy so that the electrical short-circuit in the heart that causes these problems is corrected.

- Smoking and cardiovascular disease -

The relationship between smoking and cardiovascular disease became well established from major epidemiological studies in the 1980s. Coronary heart disease, stroke and arterial disease were all found to be strongly linked with smoking and that smoking increased the effect of other risk factors.

THE 1990s :-

- Physical activity and the heart -

Since the 1970s various studies have supported the benefit of vigorous exercise in protecting against coronary heart disease. But more recently, in the 1990s it has been conclusively demonstrated that physically active people have a reduced risk of coronary heart disease. This can be effective with 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity, such as walking, on at least five times a week.

- Stent development improves patients' long-term outcomes -

Arteries widened by angioplasty sometimes become narrowed again soon afterwards in some patients. Tiny wire mesh tubes, or stents, were developed to help stop this happening. The stent is inserted at the widened part of the artery and holds it open by acting as a mini-scaffold.

- Antiplatelets -

Aspirin has been used since the 1980s for patients at increased risk of clots forming in blood vessels, thereby reducing the risk of heart attack when given to patients with coronary heart disease. Recently other antiplatelet drugs have been introduced which appear to have slightly fewer side effects than aspirin. Glycoprotein IIb/IIIa receptor inhibitors have often shown to be of benefit for high risk patients by preventing sudden re-narrowing of the coronary artery after angioplasty.

- Cholesterol levels and coronary heart disease -

The powerful relationship between cholesterol concentrations and the incidence of coronary heart disease was confirmed in the 1980s, followed by evidence that lowering blood cholesterol levels can reduce the incidence of coronary heart disease. The lack of strong evidence from large studies produced some scepticism, but the randomised controlled trials of the 1990s showed that lipid-lowering with diet and drugs reduced mortality and morbidity for coronary heart disease.

- Automated external defibrillators -

After a cardiac arrest, prompt action is essential in saving lives. Automated emergency defibrillators (AEDs) are small, safe, simple and lightweight with two pads that can be applied to the patient who has collapsed following a cardiac arrest. The defibrillator records and analyses the rhythm and, if necessary instructs the user to deliver a shock using clear voice prompts, reinforced by displayed messages.


- New approaches to heart surgery -

Findings so far suggest that patients undergoing keyhole and port access cardiac surgery make a speedier recovery. This is a technique which may in certain circumstances offer an alternative to standard coronary artery bypass surgery. Surgery may be performed on the beating heart, involving small or large incisions, and may therefore avoid the use of a heart/lung bypass machine.

- Will genetics unlock the secrets of heart disease? -

One of the new areas BHF is currently funding is genetic research. Researchers' understanding of genetics has grown rapidly in the last few years and this has already helped us discover more about an individual's risk of heart problems. Our growing understanding of genetics could one day help doctors not only predict heart disease but also tailor treatments to suit individual needs.

 - 'Mending Broken Hearts' Appeal -

 In 2011 the BHF has launched an appeal to raise an additional £50 million to fund groundbreaking research that could begin to literally 'mend broken hearts' in as little as ten years.  At the moment, the human heart cannot heal itself.  When you have a heart attack, a part of the heart muscle dies. This irreversible damage can lead to heart failure as the heart is not pumping as efficiently as it should.    Each day people with heart failure have to cope with symptoms such as tiredness, breathlessness, palpitations, swollen ankles, lack of appetite, anxiousness and depression.  We think that if we find and harness the key genes and chemical messengers, in the right cells, at the right time, we could find a way to help our hearts fix themselves.  Just like a broken bone will heal.


Return to top

For more information about heart-related matters please go to the main BHF website:-



The BHF Exeter & District Branch is a voluntary fundraising branch of the British Heart Foundation, which is a registered Charity Number 225971. 
British Heart Foundation is registered as a Company limited by guarantee in England & Wales No. 699547.  Registered office at Greater London House, 180 Hampstead Road, London NW1 7AW.

Community Web Kit provided free by BT