Cardiovascular Disease

Risk Factors

Becoming aware of risk factors for heart disease and heart attack is the first step toward lowering your chance of developing heart disease. There are several different risk factors- some of which cannot be changed, but others can.

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Major risk factors for heart disease that can’t be changed

Age  - Over 83 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.

Gender  (male sex) - Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women, and they have attacks earlier in life.  Even after menopause, when women's death rate from heart disease increases, it's not as great as men's.

Heredity  (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.  Just as you can't control your age, sex and race, you can't control your family history.  Therefore, it's even more important to treat and control any other risk factors you have.

Major risk factors that can be changed or controlled

Tobacco smoke  - Smokers' risk of developing heart disease is 2–4 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 someone who smokes cigarettes.  Exposure to other people's smoke increases the risk of heart disease even for nonsmokers.

Physical inactivity  -  An inactive lifestyle is a risk factor for heart disease.  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.

Diet  - Several aspects of dietary patterns have been linked to heart disease and related conditions.  These include diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol, which raise blood cholesterol levels and promote atherosclerosis.  High salt or sodium in the diet causes raised blood pressure levels.

High blood pressure  - High blood pressure increases the heart's workload, causing the heart muscle to thicken and become stiffer.  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.

Obesity and overweight  - People who have excess body fat — especially 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.  Many obese and overweight people may have difficulty losing weight.  But by losing even as few as 10 pounds can lower your heart disease risk.

Diabetes mellitus  - 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 we controlled.  About three-quarters 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 healthcare provider to manage it and control any other risk factors you can.

Other factors contributing to 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 otherwise would.

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 is not recommended that nondrinkers start using alcohol or that those who drink increase the amount they drink.

Salt - The ideal intake of salt is no more than six grams or approximately a teaspoon per day.   Too much salt can raise blood pressure and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.  People who significantly cut back on the amount of salt in their diet even by just one gram per day reduced their chances of developing cardiovascular disease by 25% and their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 20%.