The risk of having a heart attack, or cardiovascular disease, can increase as we age – but it does not have to be a normal occurrence. One can decrease their risk with basic lifestyle improvements.
Risk factors can vary from person to person, the most common factors include:
Age – Women who are 55 years old or more, and men who are 45 years old or more have more heart attacks than younger people.
Family History – Some people are at a greater risk if they have a parent, grandparent, or sibling who has had an early heart attack. However, unless attributed to a proven genetic predisposition, much of the risk can be attributed to the role of family traditions such as food choices and overall lifestyle.
Obesity – People who are overweight, or have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, are considered to be obese. Body mass index is calculated using an individual’s height and weight. Having excess fat around the waist can raise the chances of developing heart disease even if not deemed as being overweight. For a man, excess belly fat means more than a 40 inch waist and for women, a waist of over 35 inches. Obesity increases the risk for heart disease and stroke. But it harms more than just the heart and blood vessel system. It’s also a major cause of gallstones, osteoarthritis, and respiratory problems. Over a 12 year study, researchers have found that being overweight or obese increases a person’s risk of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) by up to 28% compared to those with a healthy body weight, even if they have healthy blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels. Nearly 70% of American adults are either overweight or obese. Being obese puts you at a higher risk for health problems such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and more.
Smoking – Smoking tobacco, as well as long-term exposure to secondhand smoke, increases one’s risk of having a heart attack. In the United States, approximately 20% of all deaths from heart disease are directly related to cigarette smoking. Smoking is a major cause of Coronary Artery Disease. Secondhand smoke can also damage the hearts and blood vessels of people who do not smoke in the same way. Chemicals in tobacco smoke harm blood cells and can damage the function of the heart and the functioning of blood vessels. This damage increases the risk of Atherosclerosis – a disease in which a waxy plaque builds up in the arteries. The nicotine present in smoke causes heart disease by decreasing oxygen to the heart, raising blood pressure and heart rate, increasing blood clotting, and damaging cells that line coronary arteries and other vessels.
Lack of Exercise – A lack of exercise is a major risk factor for developing Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) because it also increases the risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, high blood cholesterol levels, and obesity. People who get regular aerobic exercise have better cardiovascular fitness, which decreases their overall risk of heart attack. Just taking brisk walks every day can help. Regular exercise can also reduce the risk of depression, another risk factor for heart disease. To greatly improve heart health, try to exercise for 4 to 5 days a week at 30 to 40 minutes each day. Exercise improves cardiovascular health by increasing heart rate, making the lungs expand, burning excess calories, controlling weight, improving lipid levels (blood fats), and lowering blood pressure. Those who exercise also have a reduced physical response to stress, as their blood pressure and heart rate does not increase as high and as quickly as someone under stress who does not exercise.
Stress – The way an individual responds to stress can increase their risk of a heart attack. The hormone Cortisol is released by the body as a response to stress, and science has shown that a high level of Cortisol from a period of stress can increase blood cholesterol levels, bad triglycerides, and blood pressure – the common risk factors for heart disease. Stress can also cause changes that promote the buildup of plaque deposits in blood vessels and arteries. Even minor stress can trigger heart problems such as poor blood flow to the heart muscle, causing the heart to not get enough blood or oxygen. Long-term stress can cause blood clots by thickening the blood and thus, increasing the risk of stroke. People who have a lot of stress might choose unhealthy ways to deal with stress such as smoking, using dangerous drugs, or overeating. Stimulants and drugs such as amphetamine or cocaine or can trigger a spasm in the coronary arteries which can also cause a heart attack.
High Blood Cholesterol Levels – A high level of low-density bad cholesterol Lipoprotein (LDL) is the most likely to narrow arteries with plaque, and a high level of fatty blood triglycerides increases your risk of a heart attack. However, maintaining a higher level of high-density good cholesterol Lipoprotein (HDL) actually helps to lower your risk of having a heart attack because it helps to clear cholesterol from the blood. Too much cholesterol in your blood eventually builds up up in the walls of arteries, causing a process called Atherosclerosis, which is a form of heart disease. Narrowed or blocked arteries can prevent blood from reaching your heart, brain, or other organs – which can lead to a heart attack, stroke, or heart failure.
High Blood Pressure – High blood pressure (Hypertension or HBP) results when the force of blood pushing against the walls of blood vessels maintains at too high of a level. The tissues and organs of the body require oxygenated blood to be freely flowing throughout the cardiovascular and circulatory system. With each heart beat, pressure is created to push blood through a network of blood vessels, arteries, veins, and capillaries. Blood pressure is basically the result of two forces – as Systolic pressure that occurs when blood pumps out of the heart and into the arteries, and as Diastolic pressure which is created as the heart pauses between heart beats. High blood pressure begins to cause harm as it increases the workload of the heart and the blood vessels. Over time, the force and friction of high blood pressure eventually damages the delicate tissues inside the arteries while bad LDL cholesterol forms plaque along the tiny tears in the artery walls – marking the start of Atherosclerosis. As more plaque builds and damage occurs, the arteries become narrower which results in raising blood pressure even more – causing further harm to the arteries, the heart, and the rest of the body.
Diabetes – The longer you have diabetes, the higher the chances become that you will develop heart disease because, over time, high blood glucose can damage your blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart. People with diabetes tend to develop heart disease at a younger age than people without diabetes – and adults with diabetes are nearly twice as likely to suffer or die from heart disease and stroke. The body uses glucose with the help a a hormone secreted by the pancreas called Insulin. Diabetes occurs when the pancreas do not produce enough Insulin to process glucose and causes blood sugar levels to rise. Maintaining blood sugar is important. The A1C test shows an average of blood glucose level over a period of 3 months and the higher your A1C number, the higher the blood glucose levels – which means more harm to the heart, blood vessels, kidneys, eyes, and feet.
Treatments for heart disease and cardiovascular disease include making heart-healthy lifestyle changes, taking some prescribed medicines, and undergoing certain medical procedures as necessary. If you have symptoms caused by the narrowing or blockage of an artery, you may need a medical procedure such as angioplasty and/or stent placement. Treatment goals are to prevent you from having a heart attack or stroke and to stop the disease from becoming worse. Your individual treatment depends on how severe your condition is, your symptoms, as well as your age and overall level of health.
Prevention is always the best medicine. South Strand Cardiology strongly endorses focusing on your heart health to stop or decrease the chance of developing a heart condition in the first place. If you are concerned about your heart health, contact us to schedule an appointment today.