What Are Your Risk Factors for Heart Disease?
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Although there are different types of heart disease, coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common. CAD occurs when vessels that supply blood to the heart muscle become narrow. This narrowing happens when fats, cholesterol, and calcium build up on the vessel walls. As the build-up thickens, the vessels become narrower, making it difficult for blood to flow to the heart muscle. This can lead to a heart attack, heart failure, or even death.
Cholesterol receives a lot of attention for being a risk factor for CAD. You may think that if you lower your cholesterol numbers, you will reduce your overall heart disease risk. But focusing only on your cholesterol numbers is a small part of achieving the real goal—lowering your risk of CAD. Beyond the numbers, there are other risk factors that you need to be aware of.
What Are Your Risk Factors for Heart Disease?
There are two main types of risk factors for heart disease. There are those that you can change (modifiable) and those that you cannot change (non-modifiable). For example, age is a non-modifiable risk factor. Being older puts you at greater risk for developing CAD, but you cannot prevent aging. Smoking also puts you at higher risk for developing heart disease. But this risk factor is modifiable because you can quit smoking and lower your risk. Here are more examples of the two types:
- Age—Risk increases as you get older.
- Gender—Men have a greater risk of heart attack.
- Menopause—For women, risk increases after menopause.
- Family history—Risk increases if family members have heart disease.
- Race—African Americans, Mexican Americans, American Indians, Hawaiians, and Asian Americans are at a higher risk.
- Being overweight or obese
- Poor nutrition
- Low physical activity
- High blood pressure
- Low HDL, or “good,” cholesterol
- High LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol
Cholesterol: One Piece of the Puzzle
Since it is not always possible to see heart disease developing, measuring cholesterol levels is a way for you and your doctor to get an idea of whether heart disease is more likely. But keep in mind that maintaining or achieving ideal cholesterol levels does not mean that you no longer have to worry about a heart attack, stroke, or heart disease. For instance, a 65-year-old man who is overweight, smokes, and has a family history of heart disease is still at risk of having a heart attack, even if his cholesterol levels are ideal.
The great thing about working on all of your modifiable risk factors is that many are connected. For example, if you are physically active, not only does the activity lower your risk for heart disease, but it can also lower your weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure.
Here are some things you can do to lower your risk of heart disease:
Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day. Some good choices include walking, cycling, jogging, and swimming.
Try to include plenty of fruits and vegetables, nuts, and whole grains in your diet. A healthy diet should include foods that are low in saturated fat, cholesterol, trans fat, sugar, and salt. Also, limiting your total calories to a reasonable amount is important.
Everyone’s body is different. A healthy weight for one person may not be healthy for another person. One thing is certain: too much weight can increase your risk of heart disease. Eating healthy and exercising can remove obesity as a risk factor.
Do not smoke. If you do smoke, quit. Smoking is one of the biggest risk factors for heart death. Non-smokers should also avoid second-hand smoke.
Limit your alcohol to a moderate level. This means two or fewer drinks per day for men and one or fewer drinks for women and older adults. One drink equals a 12-ounce bottle of beer, a five-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor.
If you have high cholesterol, do not just try to lower the number. Instead, focus on lowering your risk for heart disease. Exercising and eating healthy not only lower your cholesterol numbers, they also make you healthier overall.
Medicines may be needed for some people. Statins are one type of drug that not only lower cholesterol, but also lower heart disease risk in some people. Statins should be used along with healthy lifestyle habits. If you are prescribed a statin and your cholesterol numbers improve, this does not mean that you should be sedentary and eat whatever you want. You will still need to focus on other modifiable risk factors.
If you have high blood pressure, work to get it under control. Eating a healthy diet, exercising, and not drinking alcohol are just some ways to help control your blood pressure. Some people will also need to take medicines.
If you have diabetes, it is important to keep it under control. Eating well, exercising, and taking medicines can help with this. If you do not have diabetes, keeping your weight at a reasonable amount will help lower your chance of developing diabetes.
The Total Picture
Decreasing your risk for heart disease means more than just achieving normal cholesterol levels—it means addressing all modifiable risk factors. Practicing a healthy lifestyle is key to reducing many of the risk factors for heart disease. Work with your doctor to develop a plan that is right for you. This will ensure that you are doing all you can to keep your heart healthy.
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Last reviewed November 2010 by Brian S. Alper, MD, MSPH
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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