I was watching the Rachael Ray Show recently and heard Rachael and Joy Behar discuss their family history of heart disease. They talked about their struggles to prevent it knowing that it runs in their families. I was also glad to hear that they revealed that heart disease is actually the number one killer of both men and women. Almost 18 million people suffer from it in the U.S., and half of those people end up having a heart attack. It is the cause of one third of all deaths in Americans over the age of 35. More than likely, you or someone you love will be affected by heart disease, too.
Like Rachael, raising the awareness of this disease is our first step to preventing it. We know that some people are more prone towards developing it, but who? How do we know who is more likely to suffer from a heart attack or stroke? Today, I’ll dissect the major risk factors towards developing heart disease in the hopes of motivating my audience to help prevent this killer..
What is Heart Disease?
With age, we all develop thickening of our blood vessels. This thickening occurs throughout the body, including in vessels that feed the heart (the coronary arteries) and cause heart attacks, and the ones that feed the brain (the carotid arteries) and cause strokes. These thickenings are termed plaques, and are due to the build-up of cholesterol and the body’s attempts to patch-up the boo-boos caused from damage. Once these plaques thicken over time, they can clog our arteries. This is termed cardiovascular disease and it can affect the heart, the arteries feeding the brain, the legs (also known as peripheral vascular disease), and even the large arteries in the abdomen or chest. Heart disease refers to the thickening that occurs only in the coronary arteries, and is a subset of cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately, it accounts for one million deaths per year in the United States alone
What Are the Risk Factors for Developing Heart Disease?
It’s hard to tell who will develop heart disease with 100% certainty. However, doctors do know that certain patients are apt to develop it more than others based on their risk factors. In order to prevent heart disease, it’s important to find out actually helps develop it. So anytime any patient walks in with symptoms of chest pain, these are the risk factors that tend to run through your doctor’s mind when considering the next steps in your evaluation and assessment:
- Hypertension: High blood pressure tends to damage the lining of the blood vessels due to the increased friction from the elevated flow. Think of it as a garden hose – if you increase the water pressure enough, it can damage the inner tube lining. The only difference is that the body has a way to patch that up, and it can actually over-patch the damage, causing the vessels to narrow or clog over time.
- Diabetes: Elevated blood sugar can cause damage to the lining of the blood vessels. In addition, those with diabetes also tend to suffer from some of the other heart disease risk factors, such as hypertension and obesity (see below). If you have diabetes, make sure you’ve listened to my previous podcast on the Inane Listicle of 10 Things You’ve Already Seen Somewhere Else Every Diabetic Should Do in order to decrease your risk factors as much as possible.
- Cigarette Smoking: Cigarettes contain toxins that damage the lining of blood vessels. In one study, men who smoked at least 20 cigarettes a day were shown to have a six-times increased risk of suffering from a heart attack and women had a three-times increased risk, compared to those who did not smoke at all. So this is one of the most preventable risk factors for heart disease. If you want to quit and need help, make sure to listen to my prior episode on 8 Tips to Quit Smoking.
- Family History: Who does this refer to? No, it does not include your third cousin twice-removed or your spouse. Only if your first-degree relatives, such as parents or siblings, have heart disease, is it considered as a technically major risk factor. And only if those male family members were below age 50 and females less than age 60 when they had their first heart attack.
- Obesity: If your Body Mass Index (BMI) is higher than 25 you have a higher risk of developing heart disease. You can calculate your BMI using this formula:
Once you find your number, refer to Table 1 below to see whether you are overweight
- Underweight : Less than 18.5
- Normal : 18.5 to 24.9
- Overweight : 25.0 to 29.9
- Obese : Greater than or equal to 30.0
- Physical Inactivity: Lack of exercise also predisposes to heart disease. At least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise, such as biking or brisk walking, on most days out of the week is recommended in order to prevent heart disease. Check out our Get-Fit Guy’s easy tips on short but effective workouts.
- Abnormal Cholesterol: The following cholesterol abnormalities tend to be riskier high total cholesterol high LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) low HDL (the “good” cholesterol) high triglycerides