Heart Disease: Risk Factors and Prevention

Written by: Lexie Villariasa
Medically reviewed by: Robert Philibert MD PhD
 
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and a major cause of disability. While there are many factors that can contribute to heart disease, there are steps you can take to control and prevent heart disease. These steps can be split into modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors.
 
What are non-modifiable risk factors?
These are some examples of non-modifiable risk factors, meaning you cannot change or control them.

  • Age : Although heart disease can happen at any age, the risk increases as you get older. This is especially evident in men ages 45 and above and in women ages 55 and above.
  • Sex : There are factors that can vary between men and women, affecting how treatment is offered. For example, diabetes raises the risk of heart disease more often in women than in men.
  • Ethnicity/Race : African Americans have a greater risk than Caucasians of experiencing heart disease. While East Asians have a lower risk, South Asians have a higher risk of experiencing heart disease.
  • Family History : You have a greater risk if someone in your family has had heart disease. Genetic factors also may play a role, but it is also likely that having a family history of heart disease means having common lifestyle factors that may increase the risk.

 
What are modifiable risk factors?

  • High blood pressure
  • Diet
  • High cholesterol/triglycerides
  • Obesity
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • Diabetes
  • Sleep Hygiene

 
What can I do to prevent heart disease?
It is never too early to start a heart healthy lifestyle. If you have multiple risk factors or family history, these are some steps you can take for prevention. Make sure to consult with your doctor as well to address any of your concerns.

  • Manage Blood Pressure
    • High blood pressure or “hypertension”  is a major contributing factor to heart disease. If not controlled, hypertension can affect your heart and other parts of your body like the kidneys, liver, and brain. Known as the “silent killer”, high blood pressure often presents with no symptoms. This is why it is important to get your blood pressure checked regularly (at least once a year). You can lower your blood pressure with healthier lifestyle changes (diet, exercise) or by taking medications.
  • Control Cholesterol
    • There are two types of cholesterol:
      • LDL “low density lipoprotein” cholesterol = bad cholesterol
        • A low LDL is good for your heart health.
      • HDL “high density lipoprotein” cholesterol = good cholesterol
        • A high HDL is good for your heart health.
    • Our liver makes enough cholesterol to keep our bodies running, but we often get more cholesterol than needed from the foods we consume. As a result, this extra cholesterol builds up on artery walls, narrowing them and decreasing blood flow to the heart, brain and other important organs.
    • Like high blood pressure, high cholesterol or “hypercholesterolemia” is often asymptomatic. The only way to know if you have high cholesterol is if you get checked through a lipid profile during your blood test.
  • Stay Active!
    • Exercise is a key component in strengthening your heart and getting your circulation running. Staying physically active for at least 30 minutes a day also helps with lowering cholesterol/blood pressure and maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Heart-Healthy Nutrition
    • Avoid a diet high in saturated fats, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars. Instead, opt for fresh fruit, leafy green vegetables, and whole grains.
    • The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is an eating plan that has been shown to reduce blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels. This plan emphasizes eating:
      • Whole grains
      • Leafy vegetables
      • Fat-free and low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, oils, nuts
      • Limit foods that are high in saturated fats
      • Limit added sugars in drinks and sweets
  • Limit Alcohol Consumption
    • Too much alcohol can lead to an increase in blood pressure and triglycerides.
    • Women should not have more than 1 drink per day.
    • Men should not have more than 2 drinks per day.
  • Reduce Tobacco Smoke
    • Smoking damages the heart and blood vessels, further increasing the risk for heart disease.
    • Carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen that blood can carry while nicotine increases blood pressure.
    • Second-hand smoking also increases the risk for heart disease even if you do not smoke.
  • Manage Diabetes
    • The presence of diabetes greatly increases the risk for heart disease. High blood sugar levels can result in damage to blood vessels and nerves, so early detection and management of diabetes is very important.
    • Along with eating healthier meals, maintaining a healthy weight, and staying physically active – take appropriate medications if needed.
  • Less Stress, More Sleep
    • Stress is often linked to heart disease. It can raise your blood pressure, and in extreme cases cause a heart attack. Inability to cope with stress can result in unhealthy habits such as overeating, alcohol consumption, and smoking. To help cope with stress, consider meditating, listening to calm music or taking a peaceful stroll.
    • Good sleep hygiene and healthy sleep habits are crucial to the effective treatment of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes. Getting a good night’s rest of around 7 to 9 hours helps the maintenance of clear cognition and healthy heart function.

 
References:

  1. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/understand-your-risks-to-prevent-a-heart-attack
  2. https://medlineplus.gov/dasheatingplan.html
  3. https://medlineplus.gov/howtopreventheartdisease.html
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/risk_factors.htm
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