7 Heart Disease Risk Factors and How to Protect Yourself From Them
We normally associate heart disease with the elderly or people who were born with a congenital disorder, but that line of thinking might actually be deadly.
Cardiovascular disease accounts for nearly 801,000 deaths (that's about 1 in 3 people) in the United States every year, according to the American Heart Association's 2017 figures. About 2,200 Americans die of cardiovascular disease each day (an average of 1 death every 40 seconds), and cardiovascular diseases claim more lives each year than all forms of cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease combined. About 92.1 million American adults are living with some form of cardiovascular disease — and some might not even know it.
No, cardiovascular disease is not just for the old, and the American Heart Association recommends that you start assessing your risk factors and taking preventative steps as early as your 20s. You can't change risk factors such as age, gender, race and heredity, but you can do something about the following seven factors related to lifestyle.
Risk factor No. 1: Smoking
Smoking cigarettes tops the list as the most important preventable major risk factor of cardiovascular disease. And not only does smoking do damage to your health, your secondhand smoke harms nonsmokers, including infants and children. According to the American Heart Association, there are nearly 440,000 smoking-related deaths every year. Instead of becoming one of the fatal statistics, get involved in a smoking cessation program — you'll be reducing your own risk of heart disease as well as helping to improve the health of your loved ones.
Risk factor No. 2: Inactivity
Research has shown that achieving just a moderate level of fitness can reduce your risk of heart disease and extend your life. Further, getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week can help lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and keep your weight at a healthy level — all factors in improving your heart health. Make your 30 minutes fun — take your dog for a walk, play at the park with your kids, meet a friend at the gym for a fitness class — so you are more likely to make exercise a habit. If needed, start slow with 10 minutes a day and gradually build your stamina up to attain 30 minutes. You'll feel better, look better and improve the quality — and length — of your life.
Risk factor No. 3: Diet
Following a healthy diet will decrease your risk of heart disease by lowering your cholesterol and blood pressure as well as help you maintain a healthy weight. Be sure your diet includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, low-fat dairy, nuts, seeds, legumes and healthy fats like omega-3s and monounsaturated fat. Avoid foods high in saturated and trans fat and limit your intake of fast food or processed foods. Connect with a registered dietitian or nutritionist to design a healthy — yet delicious and satisfying — diet plan that will decrease your risk of heart disease and improve your overall health.
Risk factor No. 4: Stress
Stress on some level is a daily part of life. The way you handle stress, however, makes a significant difference in how stress affects your health and your risk for heart disease. If you deal with stress through overeating, smoking, drinking in excess or neglecting your health in other ways, you are putting yourself at risk for weight gain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart attack or stroke. Learning to manage your stress or decrease your daily stressors can help you make healthier lifestyle decisions and improve the quality of your life.
Risk factor No. 5: Alcohol consumption
Though a glass of wine a day has been associated with heart health, overdoing it can actually raise your risk of a heart attack or stroke. Drinking too much alcohol raises blood pressure, adds empty calories to your diet, can contribute to obesity and makes losing weight more difficult. If you drink, limit yourself to one drink a day. Keep in mind that one drink is defined as 1-1/2 fluid ounces (fl oz) of 80-proof spirits (such as bourbon, scotch, vodka, gin, etc.), 1 fluid ounce of 100-proof spirits, 4 fluid ounces of wine or 12 fluid ounces of beer. If you don't drink, don't start. And if you are pregnant, do not drink any alcohol at all.
Risk factor No. 6: Blood pressure
High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is the single largest risk factor for stroke. Stroke is the No. 3 killer and one of the leading causes of disability in the United States. Easy ways to lower your blood pressure are: lower your salt or sodium intake, exercise, quit smoking, don't drink in excess of a drink a day and manage your stress. Talk to your doctor about other ways to lower your blood pressure, and if prescribed, take your medications as directed.
Risk factor No. 7: Cholesterol
High blood cholesterol puts you at an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. A healthy lifestyle including exercise and a nutritious diet that reduces your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and dietary cholesterol (in foods that you eat) can lower your blood cholesterol. In addition, if exercise and diet alone aren't effective in lowering your cholesterol (your total cholesterol should be less than 200mg/dl), you may need to take cholesterol-lowering medication. See your doctor to get a blood test to determine your cholesterol levels and create an action plan to help you lower it if your numbers are high.
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Originally published February 2009. Updated February 2017.