Heart Disease Risk Factors

Meritus Cardiology Services

It should not be news to you. Smoking, obesity, an inactive lifestyle and high blood pressure all pave the way to cardiovascular disease. Year after year, heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. Yet when it comes to the contributors of cardiovascular disease, the list continues to grow.

"While most of the focus has been on treating major heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, obesity, and smoking, it is clear that there are other factors involved," explained Tarek El-Sherif, MD, FACC, and cardiologist at Robinwood Heart Center. According to Dr. El-Sherif, sleep apnea, for one, is an under-diagnosed and common disease that has been linked to both heart and lung disease. Sleep apnea occurs when a person stops breathing during sleep for ten seconds or longer. It can cause problems in the cells lining the blood vessels and potentially damage the heart.

"We've also learned that inflammation plays an important role in heart disease," said Dr. El-Sherif. "People with persistent gum disease, psoriasis, lupus, and other chronic inflammatory conditions may be at a higher risk for a heart attack," he added. Inflammation increases plaque in the arteries and leads to blocked blood vessels. A protein called C-reactive multiplies during injury or infection, causing inflammation. Studies have linked high levels of this protein with an increased risk for a heart attack.

Are you familiar with these indicators of heart disease?

  • Unusual fatigue can sometimes mean a reduction of blood flow to the heart.
  • Pregnancy complications such as pre-eclampsia or gestational diabetes are often signs of future heart trouble. Pre-eclampsia can be a precursor to blood clotting or high blood pressure. Gestational diabetes enhances the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Vitamin D deficiency may intensify the development of high blood pressure and blood vessel inflammation.
  • Frequent migraine headaches, occurring in women and accompanied by a visual disturbance (flashing lights), can often signal a future stroke.
  • Too little sleep (five hours or less) can put women at risk of calcium build-up in their arteries. Seven to eight hours of sleep is recommended.
  • Clotting disorders such as deep vein thrombosis, varicose veins, and livedo reticularis (purplish discoloration of the skin) can bring about a stroke.

You Can Take Preventative Measures

Risk factors often come in groups—like sleep apnea, high blood pressure, and obesity. "Your risk of having a stroke or heart attack goes down dramatically if you address your modifiable conditions," said Dr. El-Sherif. Smoking, high blood pressure, extra weight, and sleep apnea are examples of things you can change (modifiable conditions). Examples of non-modifiable conditions include a family history of heart disease and the aging process.

According to Dr. El-Sherif, avoiding cardiovascular disease boils down to common sense. He emphasizes the need for annual health check-ups, maintaining a healthy weight, staying physically active and eating healthy. "Everyone wants a quick fix—like taking over-the-counter supplements," commented Dr. El-Sherif. "But you have to make tough decisions and lifestyle changes."

Heart Disease in Women

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in American women, killing 1 in 3 women nationally. Approximately 287 women die each year in Washington County of heart disease. Women are four to six times more likely to develop heart disease than breast cancer. Unfortunately, only 20% consider it their greatest health risk. Over 8,000,000 American women are currently living with heart disease, therefore it is important to know the risk factors, along with the signs and symptoms associated with the disease.

There are eight major risk factors for cardiovascular disease:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Being over the age of 55
  • Having a family history of heart disease

The majority of heart disease risk factors are controllable. Simply maintaining a healthy lifestyle can lower your risk by as much as 82%.

Examining the Risk Factors

The most common major risk factor in those with heart disease is smoking. High blood pressure and high cholesterol are also factors. 25% of women have high blood pressure, leading to heart failure in 2.5 million women. Women with diabetes are two to three times more likely to have heart attacks than those who do not have diabetes. Approximately 60% of women are overweight and get less than 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, greatly increasing their chance of heart disease.

Having a family history of heart disease and being over the age of 55 are two genetic risk factors. Women who have a father or brother who experienced a heart attack before the age of 55, or a mother or sister who had a heart attack before the age of 65 have an increased chance of developing heart disease. It is particularly important to be aware of your family history of cardiovascular disease because it is a factor often overlooked in women. Estrogen serves as protection against heart disease in women, therefore once a woman has gone through menopause her risk increases dramatically. 12.5% of women between the ages of 45-64 and 33% of women over the age of 65 have heart disease.

Heart Disease is Underdiagnosed in Women

Women are less likely to survive a heart attack because their heart disease has not been diagnosed and treated. Many women are stoic and treat symptoms as just another ache and pain. According to Dr. Gary Papuchis, Hagerstown Heart, "There is no such thing as a stupid symptom," so it is critical to be tested should you have any indication of the disease.

It is important to control as many of the risk factors as possible because having more than one risk factor does not simply add to your risk, it multiplies it. Your risk for heart disease can be lowered by following the Ten Commandments for a Healthy Heart as developed by The Heart Truth campaign.

  • Know your risk factors for heart disease.
  • Talk to your doctor about reducing your risk of heart disease.
  • Have your blood pressure checked regularly.
  • Know your cholesterol numbers. (These include total cholesterol, HDL or "good" cholesterol, LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, and triglycerides.)
  • Have your blood sugar level checked for diabetes.
  • Do not smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products.
  • Eat for a healthy heart.
  • Get regular physical activity. (At least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most or all days of the week.)
  • Aim for a healthy weight.
  • Know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack and the importance of seeking medical help.