A strong partnership with your doctor is a vital first step in protecting your heart health. But to make a lasting difference, you’ll also need to learn more about heart disease and the kinds of habits and conditions that can increase your risk. It’s your heart, and you’re in charge.
What follows is a guide to the most important risk factors for heart disease and how each of them affects your health.
- High Blood Pressure
- High Blood Cholesterol
- Overweight and Obesity
- Physical Inactivity
Smoking is “the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
People who smoke are up to six times more likely to suffer a heart attack than nonsmokers, and the risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked each day. Smoking can also shorten a healthy life, because smokers are likely to suffer a heart attack or other major heart problem at least 10 years sooner than nonsmokers.
But heart disease is far from the only health risk faced by smokers. Smoking also raises the risk of stroke and greatly increases the chances of developing lung cancer. Smoking is also linked with many other types of cancer, including cancers of the mouth, urinary tract, kidney, and cervix. Smoking also causes most cases of chronic obstructive lung disease, which includes bronchitis and emphysema.
If you live or work with others, your secondhand smoke can cause numerous health problems in those individuals. A recent study shows a 60-percent increased risk of heart disease for nonsmokers who are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke.
2. High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is another major risk factor for heart disease, as well as for kidney disease and congestive heart failure. High blood pressure is also the most important risk factor for stroke. Even slightly high blood pressure levels increase your risk for these conditions.
New research shows that at least 65 million adults in the United States have high blood pressure—a 30-percent increase over the last several years. Equally worrisome, blood pressure levels have increased substantially for American children and teens, which increases their risk of developing hypertension in adulthood.
Major contributors to high blood pressure are a family history of the disease, overweight, and dietary salt. Older individuals are at higher risk than younger people. Among older individuals, women are more likely than men to develop high blood pressure. African Americans are more likely to develop high blood pressure, and at earlier ages, than Whites. But nearly all of us are at risk, especially as we grow older. Middle-aged Americans who don’t currently have high blood pressure have a 90-percent chance of eventually developing the disease.
3. High Blood Cholesterol
High blood cholesterol is another major risk factor for heart disease that you can do something about. The higher your blood cholesterol level, the greater your risk for developing heart disease or having a heart attack. To prevent these disorders, you should make a serious effort to keep your cholesterol at healthy levels. Cholesterol lowering is important for everyone—women and men; younger, middle-aged, and older adults; and people with and without heart disease.
4. Overweight and Obesity
A healthy weight is important for a long, vigorous life. Yet overweight and obesity (extreme overweight) have reached epidemic levels in the United States. Today, nearly two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. Groups at highest risk for obesity include African American women, Mexican Americans, and American Indians, but millions of people from all backgrounds weigh more than is healthy for them. Since 1991, the proportion of Americans who are obese has soared by 75%.
Overweight among children is also swiftly increasing. Among young people ages 6–19, more than 16% are overweight, compared to just 4% a few decades ago. This is a disturbing trend because overweight adolescents have a greatly increased risk of dying from heart disease in adulthood. Even our youngest citizens are at risk. About 10 percent of preschoolers weigh more than is healthy for them.
5. Physical Inactivity
“I’d love to take a walk—tomorrow.”
“I can’t wait to start yoga—if I can find a good class.”
“I’m going to start lifting weights—as soon as I get the time.”
Many of us put off getting regular physical activity, and hope that our bodies will understand. But our bodies don’t understand, and sooner or later, they rebel. Even if a person has no other risk factors, being physically inactive greatly boosts the chances of developing heart-related problems. It also increases the likelihood of developing other heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and overweight. Lack of physical activity also leads to more visits to the doctor, more hospitalizations, and more use of medicines for a variety of illnesses.
Diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. More than 65% of people who have diabetes die of some type of cardiovascular disease. Diabetic women are at especially high risk for dying of heart disease and stroke. Today, about 14 million people in the United States have diagnosed diabetes. In addition, nearly 6 million people have this serious disease but don’t know it.
The type of diabetes that most commonly develops in adulthood is type 2 diabetes. In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas makes insulin, but the body cannot use it properly and gradually loses the ability to produce it. Type 2 diabetes is a serious disease. In addition to increasing the risk for heart disease, it is the #1 cause of kidney failure, blindness, and lower limb amputation in adults. Diabetes can also lead to nerve damage and difficulties with fighting infection.