The dangers of heart disease cannot be overstated. It is the number one cause of death in the United States for both women and men as well as the top cause of death worldwide. In fact, heart disease kills more people in the US annually than cancer and motor vehicle accidents combined. But despite the prevalence of heart disease, the good news is that there are actionable steps you can take to lower your risk of developing a problem.
As February is American Heart Month, now’s the time to review the risk factors for heart disease and explore ways to reduce your risks. While heart disease can strike anyone of any age, race, or gender, there are some effective steps you can take to mitigate the dangers.
Heart Disease Risk Factors that You Can Control
There are several major heart disease risk factors that you can control, and possibly eliminate all together. These factors include:
Smoking tobacco is a considerable risk factor for ischemic heart disease, a condition in which plaque builds up inside the coronary arteries responsible for delivering oxygen-rich blood to your heart. When plaque builds up in the arteries, blood flow to your heart is reduced and you have a higher chance of blood clots forming in your arteries. For those that smoke over a longer course of time there’s an increased risk of having and dying from heart disease, heart failure or a heart attack, compared to non-smokers.
Not only is obesity associated with an increased risk for metabolic diseases, but it indirectly contributes to heart disease. Through the promotion of sleep apnea, thromboembolic disease and onset or worsening of metabolic diseases, obese people are subject to significant heart disease risk factors as compared to people living within an ideal weight range.
3. Poor Blood Glucose Control
If you have diabetes or are pre-diabetic, it is important to maintain tight control of your blood sugar as you are at greater risk of developing heart disease or having a heart attack. Over time, high blood glucose from diabetes can damage blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart and blood vessels. The longer you have diabetes, the higher the chances that you will develop heart disease.1
4. High Cholesterol
If you have too much high LDL (“bad” cholesterol) in your bloodstream, it can cling to the walls of your arteries. On the other hand, low HDL (the “good” cholesterol that picks up cholesterol and takes it back to the liver for disposal) can also have negative impact. In general, high levels of HDL and low levels of LDL help reduce the risk of heart disease, while the reverse can ultimately lead to narrowed or blocked arteries.
5. High Blood Pressure
Uncontrolled hypertension, or high blood pressure, can put you at a higher risk for stroke and heart disease. High blood pressure is common, but many times people don’t know that they have it or they choose not to take the next steps to control it. That’s why it’s important for you to understand what high blood pressure is, who’s at risk, and how to keep your blood pressure within a healthy range.
Uncontrollable Heart Disease Risk Factors
The following heart disease risk factors are not modifiable. However, it is still important to be aware of these risk factors so that you can be extra vigilant about your cardiovascular health if you fall into any of these categories:
Heart disease strikes men at a greater rate than women, however, the difference is not pronounced. Additionally, the symptoms for women present differently than in men. While as men may experience heavy chest and arm pain, women more often times can experience pain sensations in their jaw, back or abdomen. This differentiation has the potential to result in a higher rate of death among women since they may not think that the pain they’re experiencing is heart related and therefore, they delay seeking medical attention.
Older people are more likely to develop heart disease than the young. As you age, your chances of heart conditions and cardiovascular disease increase with those over 50 at the highest risk.
Heart disease is the top cause of death for Caucasians, African-Americans, and Native Americans. It is the number two killer of Asian-Americans and Hispanics, second only to cancer.
4. Family History
According to the National Institutes of Health, a family history of heart disease, meaning one or more of your blood relatives has or has had heart disease, is one of the primary risk factors in experiencing cardiovascular issues. More specifically, if one of your parents experienced cardiovascular disease at a young age (before 55 or 65), your risk of developing heart disease is 60-75% higher than it would be otherwise, according to a 2014 paper published in the journal Canadian Family Physician.
Preventing Heart Disease
While the threat of heart disease can be frightening, you can take some preventative measures that can help lower your risk. By understanding which risk factors you can control, you can take the next steps to properly controlling your lifestyle, which should include regular conversations with your family doctor. During your annual well visit and any sick appointments throughout the year, it is important to let your physician know of any changes to your family history, lifestyle or overall health so that they can provide you with the best possible care and guidance when it comes to your health and heart disease.
PACT is a group of board-certified specialist physicians in the New Haven, Connecticut area. Access a full, searchable list of PACT specialists here.