Many people live life to the fullest but still exercise caution as much as they can. It's easy to remember to wear a seat belt when you drive, don a helmet on bike rides, protect your eyes with safety goggles in the workshop, and use ear protection when mowing the lawn. But what about your health? Are you ignoring key risk factors for heart disease that can help protect your life? Let's take a look at the most common heart disease risks -- and how you can control them.
What's the Risk?
Risk factors for heart disease fall into three categories that can intersect, as explained by the American Heart Association (AHA):
- Major risk factors are labeled as such because numerous studies have shown they can significantly raise your risk.
- Contributing factors have some association with increased risk to your heart and blood system, but research is not conclusive.
- Modifiable/nonmodifiable terminology divides risks between those you can change and those you can't. Both modifiable and nonmodifiable risks can be either major or contributing. We'll break these risks down in the next two sections.
Risk Factors You Can't Change
Your age, gender, and family history play important roles in setting the stage for your heart health:
- According to AHA, the older you get -- especially after age 65 -- the greater your risk of heart problems.
- Women have a lower rate of heart attacks until after menopause; at that point, their rate starts to climb, but it still doesn't exceed the risk for men.
- Family history is another key factor. If your father or brother has heart problems before age 55, for example, or if your mother or sister suffers a heart attack before age 65, your risk increases.
It's important you understand the risk factors for heart disease that you can't change. If you have any of them, you need to pay more attention to those risks you can affect.
Risk Factors You Can Change
While you can't do anything about your age or family history, there are many behaviors that you have the ability to change:
- Smoking. Chemicals in tobacco smoke hurt your blood cells, damage your heart, and trigger the buildup of plaque in your arteries. Even someone who is an occasional smoker is raising their risk of heart disease. No matter how long you've smoked, stopping helps your heart. Heart-disease deaths were one-third lower among people who stopped compared to those who continued smoking.
- Obesity. Controlling your weight is a long-term challenge, but the effort is worth it. Less weight means your heart muscles and blood system have less work to do. There are no secrets here: Diet and exercise are the two key elements of weight control.
- High blood pressure. Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure is like forcing too much water through a hose. Your blood vessels expand, lose elasticity, and could rupture. High blood pressure also means the heart muscle is working harder to keep blood circulating. If you can't get your blood pressure under control with diet and exercise, talk to your physician about medication.
- High cholesterol. Hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help digest foods are the positive results of good cholesterol (HDL). It's the bad cholesterol (LDL) that builds up the fatty plaque in your blood vessels. The higher your LDL, the higher your risk of heart disease.
- Diabetes. People with type 2 diabetes, usually found in adults, are two to four times more likely to suffer heart disease and stroke. Again, diet and exercise can help reduce the level of blood glucose in your system. Your physician may also be able to suggest medication that can help.
What's Your Risk?
These factors tend to work together to increase your risk of heart disease, but controlling one risk factor tends to have a positive effect on the others. Know what you can't control, control what you can, and enjoy life to the fullest.