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Risk Factors for Heart Disease

With heart disease being cited as the leading cause of death in America, it is important to gain an understanding of what it is, as well as the various factors which contribute to heart problems. While some of these factors are out of our control, many are well within it.  And, while no one is immune to heart problems, smart lifestyle choices can help us greatly reduce our risk for heart disease.

What exactly is heart disease?

Believe it or not, “heart disease” isn’t actually one single disease. Rather, it is a blanket term for the myriad of diseases that can affect the heart, including the heart muscle itself, the valves of the heart, the blood vessel system, and the coronary arteries.  Common types of heart disease include congestive heart failure, cardiovascular disease, and coronary heart disease, although there are numerous others as well. Heart disease can cause or be caused by a variety of related health problems, such as diabetes, heart attack, stroke and hypertension (high blood pressure).

Which heart disease risk factors can we not control?

Unfortunately, some heart disease risk factors are outside of our personal control.  Luckily, these factors are limited, and most can be counterbalanced by one’s lifestyle choices.

  1. Family history. If someone in your family has suffered from heart disease, you are at an increased risk for heart disease yourself. However, it is unclear to what extent this is due to genetics and to what extent it is due to shared bad habits that have been learned from family members. Though family history does put you at an increased risk for heart disease, you can mitigate this risk by living a healthy lifestyle.
  2. Age. As we age, the body (including the cardiovascular system), becomes more delicate. Men over the age of 45 and women over the age of 55 are more likely to have a heart attack than their younger counterparts. Additionally, after menopause, a woman’s risk for heart disease increases dramatically.
  3. Gender. As it turns out, men are more likely to have heart problems than women are–and at younger ages. Even after women go through menopause (a time when heart disease spikes for women), the fatality rate from heart disease is still greater for males.

Which heart disease factors can we control?

Thankfully, we have the power to drastically reduce our risk for heart disease simply by making smart choices and healthy lifestyle adjustments.  Here are some risk factors for heart disease that we can control:

  1. Lack of physical activity. It’s tough to get exercise when you’re stuck in front of a computer all day, but leading a sedentary lifestyle greatly increases your risk for coronary heart disease. Take some time each day to move around. Even small amounts of exercise each day, such as jumping jacks or a brisk walk, can reduce your risk for heart disease and will help keep your cardiovascular system strong.
  2. Excessive alcohol use. While the occasional glass of wine may not pose a problem (and could, in fact, be beneficial to your health), excessive alcohol consumption such as regular binge drinking is known to negatively impact the cardiovascular system.  Drinking in excess raises blood pressure, which can lead to heart failure or a stroke.
  3. Smoking. Smoking carries risks for not only the heart, but for many of the body’s vital organs. Smokers have a higher risk of heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular problems. Just say no!
  4. Too much stress. Too much stress is yet another major risk factor for heart disease. Although we may not be able to control what causes stress in our daily lives, we can learn to respond to these stressors with stress reduction techniques. If you notice yourself getting frustrated easily or quick to anger, try some deep breathing exercises or going for a walk.  You might even consider getting the occasional massage to calm your nerves.

While we can’t control everything that happens to us in life, we can still make smart choices which will enable us to maintain long and healthy lives. Eating healthy foods, managing stress effectively and getting some physical activity are surefire ways to reduce your risk of heart disease. If you’re not sure where to start, a cardiologist can help you figure out what steps you can take to take to reduce your risk.

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