Heart Disease Risk Factors
Some heart disease risk factors are hereditary. Others are a function of
natural processes. Still others result from a person's lifestyle.
You can't change factors related to heredity or natural processes,
but those resulting from lifestyle or environment can be modified with
the help of a health care professional.
High blood cholesterol — As blood cholesterol rises, so does risk of coronary heart disease.
When other risk factors (such as high blood pressure and tobacco smoke)
are present, this risk increases even more. A person's cholesterol
level is also affected by age, sex, heredity and diet.
Heredity (family history) and race — Children of parents with heart disease are more likely to develop
it themselves. African Americans have more severe high blood pressure
than Caucasians and a higher risk of heart disease. Heart disease risk
is also higher among Mexican Americans, American Indians, native Hawaiians
and some Asian Americans. This is partly due to higher rates of obesity
and diabetes. Most people with a strong family history of heart disease
have one or more other risk factors.
Age — About 82 percent of people who die of coronary heart disease are
65 or older. At older ages, women who have heart attacks are more likely
than men are to die from them within a few weeks.
Sex (gender) — Men tend to have heart attacks early than women do. After menopause,
women's incidence of heart disease increases, and actually catches
up to men's incidence within 10 years of menopause.
High blood pressure (hypertension) — High blood pressure increases the heart's workload, causing
the heart to thicken and become stiffer. This stiffening of the heart
muscle is not normal, and causes the heart not to work properly. It also
increases your risk of stroke, heart attack, kidney failure and congestive
heart failure. When high blood pressure exists with obesity, smoking,
high blood cholesterol levels or diabetes, the risk of heart attack or
stroke increases several times.
Cigarette smoking — Smokers' risk of developing coronary heart disease is two to
four times that of nonsmokers. Cigarette smoking is a powerful independent
risk factor for sudden cardiac death in patients with coronary heart disease;
smokers have about twice the risk of nonsmokers. Cigarette smoking also
acts with other risk factors to greatly increase the risk for coronary
heart disease. People who smoke cigars or pipes seem to have a higher
risk of death from coronary heart disease (and possibly stroke) but their
risk isn't as great as cigarette smokers'. Exposure to other people's
smoke increases the risk of heart disease even for nonsmokers.
Diabetes mellitus — Diabetes is an independent risk factor for stroke. Many people
with diabetes also have high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and
are overweight. This increases their risk even more. While diabetes is
treatable, the presence of the disease still increases your risk of stroke.
Diabetes seriously increases your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Even when glucose 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. At least 65% of people with diabetes die of some
form of heart or blood vessel disease. If you have diabetes, it's
extremely important to work with your health care provider to manage it
and control any other risk factors you can. Persons who are obese or overweight
should lose weight to keep blood sugar in control.
Physical inactivity — An inactive lifestyle is a risk factor for coronary heart disease.
Inactive is generally considered when someone sits in chair more than
walking or engaging in regular exercise or other physical activity. Regular,
moderate-to-vigorous physical activity helps prevent heart and blood vessel
disease. The more vigorous the activity, the greater your benefits. However,
even moderate-intensity activities help if done regularly and long term.
Physical activity can help control blood cholesterol, diabetes and obesity,
as well as help lower blood pressure in some people.
Obesity and overweight — 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 HDL ("good") cholesterol levels. It can also
make diabetes more likely to develop. 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.
Stress — Individual response to stress may be a contributing factor. Some
scientists have noted a relationship between coronary heart disease risk
and stress in a person's life, their health behaviors and socioeconomic
status. These factors may affect established risk factors. For example,
people under stress may overeat, start smoking or smoke more than they
Alcohol — Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure, cause heart
failure and lead to stroke. It can contribute to high triglycerides, cancer
and other diseases, and produce irregular heartbeats. It contributes to
obesity, alcoholism, suicide and accidents. The risk of heart disease
in people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol (an average of one drink
for women or two drinks for men per day) is lower than in nondrinkers.
One drink is defined as 1-1/2 fluid ounces (fl. oz.) of 80-proof spirits
(such as bourbon, Scotch, vodka, gin, etc.), 1 fl oz. of 100-proof spirits,
4 fl oz. of wine or 12 fl oz. of beer. It's not recommended that nondrinkers
start using alcohol or that drinkers increase the amount they drink.
Diet and nutrition — A healthy diet is one of the best weapons you have to fight cardiovascular
disease. The food you eat (and the amount) can affect other controllable
risk factors: cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes and overweight. Choose
nutrient-rich foods — which have vitamins, minerals, fiber and other
nutrients but are lower in calories — over nutrient-poor foods.
A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole-grain and high-fiber foods, fish,
lean protein and fat-free or low-fat dairy products is the key. And to
maintain a healthy weight, coordinate your diet with your physical activity
level so you're using up as many calories as you take in.