Understanding the Risk Factors for Heart Disease
While family history and genetics can cause certain heart diseases, there are six major risk factors for heart disease that are both preventable and controllable. Making efforts to manage these factors can reduce risk for a heart attack or stroke by more than 80 percent. And yet, many people live every day with at least one risk factor.
Of all Americans:
- 33.5 percent have high cholesterol
- 29 percent have high blood pressure
- 18 percent smoke cigarettes
- 52 percent are physically inactive
- 35 percent suffer from obesity
- 9 percent have diabetes
One of the reasons risk for heart disease is so common is that many of these factors can be symptomless, making them hard to identify. Moreover, almost all of them are related to and influenced by each other.
To help you best manage your heart health, here’s what each risk factor looks like in every day life and tips to help.
The numbers: 29 percent of Americans have high blood pressure.
On paper: Normal blood pressure is <129mm Hg over <80mm Hg.
In real life: Also called hypertension, high blood pressure is the result of consistently high levels of blood pushing against the walls of the arteries as the heart pumps blood. It’s measured with two numbers using an inflated cuff.
In everyday life, blood pressure is largely determined by diet and lifestyle. Salt is strongly associated with high blood pressure, as is chronic alcohol consumption and potassium, calcium or magnesium deficiency. Stress may also raise your risk of high blood pressure. High blood pressure is also associated with other risk factors for heart disease including obesity, physical inactivity, smoking and diabetes. Specifically, carrying too much weight around your waist can increase your risk.
Your risk of hypertension increases with age and may also be influenced by genetics and family history or medical conditions such as thyroid disorders or sleep apnea. However, practicing prevention at any stage of your life can help not only manage your blood pressure, but lower your risk of heart disease overall.
Regular exercise, a healthy diet – particularly with reduced sodium and limited alcohol – and stress management are the foundations of a healthy lifestyle that will allow you to maintain a healthy weight and manage your risk of high blood pressure.
The numbers: 33.5 percent of Americans have high cholesterol.
On paper: A healthy total cholesterol level is less than 200mg/dL.
In real life: When people talk about cholesterol, they are more often than not referring to low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or ‘bad cholesterol.’ LDL cholesterol contributes to the build up of plaque that can clog arteries and make them less flexible. If a clot forms and blocks the arteries, it can cause a heart attack or stroke. Nutrition labels that show saturated fat and trans fat can increase the body’s production of LDL cholesterol. Saturated fat is found in animal products like beef, lamb, butter and dairy as well as certain plants such as coconut, tropical oils and cocoa butter. Trans fat is common in fried foods and baked goods like pastries, pizza dough, cookies and crackers. Be wary of ‘low-cholesterol’ options, which may still contain high levels of saturated or trans fat.
Like high blood pressure, there are no obvious symptoms of high cholesterol. While being overweight or growing older can both increase your risk, any body type can have high cholesterol and people who do not gain weight easily may be less aware of habits that put them at risk. Family history can also play a factor, meaning you may be at risk regardless of your weight, fitness, diet or lifestyle. Seeing your primary care provider will be the only way to manage your cholesterol, and this should become a regular part of your check-up starting at age 20.
If you and your physician determine that you are at risk or suffering from for high cholesterol, a healthy diet and physical activity will often be prescribed.
The American Heart Association recommends a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts, limiting red meat and sugary foods and drinks. Regular physical exercise, such as 40 minutes of aerobic exercise three to four times a week, can lower your cholesterol as well.
The numbers: 18 percent of Americans smoke.
On paper: Total smoking cessation is recommended.
In real life: Any amount of cigarette smoking raises your health risks. Smoking can cause fat buildups in the arteries, increases blood pressure and increases the tendency for blood to clot. Smoking impacts your ability to live a healthy lifestyle by diminishing your capacity to exercise, which in turn affects your blood pressure, cholesterol and weight.
Quitting smoking can be difficult, but the benefits are worth it. There are a number of smoking cessation support resources available to you and your physician can help you find the right one.
The numbers: 52 percent of Americans are physically inactive.
On paper: Healthy physical activity is at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity five times a week.
In real life: Everyone knows fitness is a key part of a healthy lifestyle. Moreover, this one risk shared by over half of Americans is as dangerous to your heart as the much more commonly talked about risks of high blood pressure or obesity.
The flip side is, of course, the significant benefit of being active: Studies show that two and half hours of moderate physical activity or one hour of vigorous physical activity each week can reduce your risk of heart disease by 30 percent.
When you eliminate this risk factor, you’re also making strides toward addressing others. Exercise not only helps you maintain a healthy weight, but can also benefit your blood pressure, blood sugar and lower your risk of inflammation.
The numbers: 35 percent of Americans are considered obese.
On paper: A healthy body mass index (BMI) is between 18.5 and 24.9; a BMI of over 30 is considered obese.
In real life: Maintaining a healthy weight is essential to heart health, and being overweight or obese can increase your blood pressure, cholesterol and risk of developing diabetes, all of which increase your risk of heart disease.
A healthy weight – measured as between 18.5 and 24.9 BMI – can help your heart more efficiently circulate blood. Losing weight around your waistline specifically can also improve your blood pressure. BMI can, however, suffer from misvaluing muscle weight in both the highly fit with a lot of muscle mass and in the elderly with deteriorated muscle. Work with your physician to ensure you’re at a healthy weight or develop a plan to help you get there.
The numbers: 9 percent of Americans have diabetes.
On paper: Healthy habits will help you minimize the impact of diabetes.
In real life: If you have diabetes, it’s even more important that you practice a healthy lifestyle to minimize your other risks of heart disease. At least 68 percent of people over 65 with diabetes die from heart disease and adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have heart disease or stroke than those without.
Diabetes is treatable, making it one of the most controllable risk factors for heart disease, yet people with diabetes often also have high blood pressure or abnormal cholesterol and can struggle with obesity and lack of physical activity.
High blood pressure, high cholesterol, physical inactivity, obesity, smoking and diabetes are six of the most common and controllable risk factors for heart disease. Because they are closely correlated, addressing one or two can help you improve your risk on multiple fronts. By staying physically active and following a healthy diet, you can lower your risk for heart disease across the board. Talk to your physician about your risk for heart disease and how everyday changes can keep your heart strong.