Don’t Miss a Beat When It Comes to Good Health
The saying goes that we are what we eat, but we also are who we are. Controlling our behaviors—diet, exercise, and daily habits—can protect us from the risk of heart disease. Other risk factors for developing heart issues, like age and family history, are baked in. Here we dig deeper into the risk and preventive factors for common heart diseases and cover cholesterol in depth. Use the information to learn what you can do to live well and feel great.
Risk Factors of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD)
Several factors increase the risk of coronary heart disease—also called coronary artery disease—and heart attack. Major risk factors are those that significantly increase the risk of heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) disease. Some can be treated and controlled. Inflammation is an emerging risk factor.
Even though our control over risk factors varies, the more risk factors we have, the more chances we have of developing CHD. And a greater level of each risk compounds the overall risk. For example, if you have high blood pressure and also high cholesterol, your risk of CHD increases.
Risk Factors That Can’t Be Changed
As we know, a few risk factors for CHD are out of our control, including family history. Given that some factors can’t be changed, it’s important to treat and control the ones we can. Here are some of the risk factors that may predispose us to heart disease:
- Age – Try as we might, we can’t fight the aging process. As we age, our risks of coronary heart disease increase. The risk for men goes up after age 45. The risk for women increases after age 55.
- Male gender – Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women and tend to have attacks earlier in life.
- Family history (heredity) – Children of parents with heart disease are more likely to develop it themselves. Most people with a strong family history of heart disease have one or more other risk factors.
- Insulin resistance – Insulin is a hormone that helps blood sugar move to the cells. If your body can’t use its own insulin, you have insulin resistance, which may lead to diabetes.
- Type 1 diabetes – This type of diabetes tends to emerge during childhood. (Type 2 diabetes, the onset of which can be prevented, is discussed below.) Diabetes seriously increases your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Even when glucose (blood sugar) levels are under control, diabetes increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, but the risks are even greater if blood sugar is not well controlled. If you have diabetes, it’s extremely important to work with your health care team to manage it and control any other risk factors you can.
Risk Factors That Can Be Changed
Let’s turn to the many things we can do—or stop doing—to stave off heart disease:
- Tobacco use – Smokers’ risk of developing coronary heart disease is two to three times that of nonsmokers. People with heart disease who smoke cigarettes are twice as likely to die from sudden death than nonsmokers. Cigarette smoking also acts with other risk factors to greatly increase the risk for coronary artery disease. Second-hand smoke increases the risk of heart disease, even for nonsmokers. Smokeless tobacco also increases the risk. Explore smoking cessation programs with your doctor; once you quit, it takes just two years for your heart attack risk to normalize.
- High blood cholesterol – As the “bad” blood cholesterol—LDL (low-density lipoprotein)—rises, so does risk of coronary artery disease. Most health experts agree that individuals with a total cholesterol level of greater than 200 mg/dl are at higher risk. When combined with other risk factors (e.g., high blood pressure and tobacco smoke), the risk is even greater. Age, gender, heredity, and diet also affect our cholesterol levels.
- High blood pressure (hypertension) – High blood pressure increases the heart’s workload, causing the heart to thicken and become stiffer. It also increases your risk of stroke, heart attack, kidney failure, and heart failure. When high blood pressure exists with obesity, smoking, high blood cholesterol levels, or diabetes, the risk of heart attack or stroke increases.
- Physical inactivity – An inactive lifestyle is a risk factor for coronary artery disease. Regular, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity helps prevent heart and blood vessel disease. The more activity you can safely perform, the greater your benefits. However, even moderate-intensity activities, like walking in the mall or around the neighborhood, help if done regularly and over the long term. Exercise can help control blood cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity, and it can even lower blood pressure in some people.
- Weight and obesity – People who have excess body fat—especially if a lot of it is at the waist—are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke even if they have no other risk factors. Excess weight increases the heart’s work. It also raises blood pressure and blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and lowers “good” HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels. It can also make you more likely to develop diabetes. Many obese and overweight people may have difficulty losing weight. But by losing even as few as 10 pounds, you can lower your heart disease risk.
- Type 2 diabetes – Formerly called adult-onset diabetes, type 2 diabetes can be prevented through moderate weight loss and exercise in adults at high risk for the disease.
Contributing Factors of CHD
The medical community consensus is that these factors contribute to heart disease:
- Stress – Individual response to stress may be a contributing factor. Some scientists have noted a link between coronary artery disease risk and stress in a person’s life. People under stress may overeat, start smoking, or smoke more than they otherwise would.
- Heavy alcohol use – Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure, cause heart failure, and lead to stroke.