Controlling your risk factors for a first heart attack.
There’s a lot that most people can do to help prevent first heart attacks. Scientific and population studies show that certain traits and lifestyle habits increase the risk of a heart attack. These danger signs are called “risk factors”. The truth is, you can avoid many causes of heart attacks if you want to. It starts by knowing the facts.
Atherosclerosis is a long-term disease process in which cholesterol and other substances build up in the inner lining of artery walls. Eventually, the artery may become completely closed off. When the blood supply cant reach a part of the heart muscle, that part begins to die. This is called a heart attack.
The risk factors for heart attacks are conditions and habits that tend to speed the development of atherosclerosis. It’s important to identify them, and eliminate or modify as many as you can. This can slow the development of atherosclerosis and help prevent a heart attack.
The following is a listing of some important risk factors that may affect you. While not all risk factors for heart attacks can be changed, such as your age or family history, there are many that can be modified.
The older you get, the more you risk of a heart attack increases. Men over 45 and women over 55 are at much greater risk. For women, the risk goes up after menopause because the protective effect of female hormones (particularly estrogen) disappears. As you get older, it’s recommended you have regular check-ups.
If your brothers, sisters, parents or grandparents have had early heart attacks, you may be at risk too. Most people with a strong family history of heart disease have one or more risk factors. Your family may have a genetic condition that raises blood cholesterol… high blood pressure may run in the family… or you may have picked up bad lifestyle habits.
A high level of cholesterol in the blood accelerates the development of atherosclerosis. Studies show that the risk of heart attack for a person with a blood cholesterol level of 240 mg/dL or more is twice that of a person whose cholesterol is 200 mg/dL. A diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol is a main cause of high blood cholesterol. In some people, overweight can also raise the level. Exercise, as well as low-saturated-fat, low-cholesterol dietary changes, will often help control cholesterol. Diet and exercise are important first steps. But if you have other risk factors besides high cholesterol – and diet and exercise haven’t worked – your doctor may also prescribe medication.
You may have heard the terms LDL and HDL in reference to cholesterol. LDL is often called “bad cholesterol” because it’s most likely to contribute to the atherosclerosis process. HDL has been called “good cholesterol” because doctors think it tends to carry excess cholesterol back to the liver where it’s removed from the body. A low level of “good cholesterol” is also considered a risk factor.
Blood pressure is the force of blood against artery walls. A major risk factor for heart disease, blood pressure is recorded as two numbers. The higher number – systolic pressure – should be less than 140 mmHg. The lower number – diastolic pressure – should be under 90 mmHg. If either number (or both) is higher for two or more blood pressure measurements, than you have high blood pressure. High blood pressure is often the result of age, race, obesity, alcohol and a diet high in salt. It’s important to get you blood pressure checked regularly, especially as you get older.
An inactive lifestyle contributes to higher blood cholesterol levels and obesity. The American Heart Association recommends 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise most days of the week to decrease the risk of a heart attack. Before beginning an exercise program, consult with your doctor.
A person is obese when he or she is more than 30 percent overweight. Being this heavy increases the risk of heart disease and, in some cases, has an extremely bad effect on other risk factors. If you can’t lose weight on your own, talk with your doctor, a registered dietitian or a nutritionist licensed or certified by the state.
Scientists believe smoking promotes heart disease in a variety of ways. It speeds up the development of atherosclerosis, reduces the level of HDL cholesterol, and may also encourage platelets to clump together which can lodge in an artery. If you smote… QUIT. As soon as you stop, your risk of heart disease begins to drop.
Diabetes is the inability of the body to produce or respond to insulin properly. Insulin allows the body to use glucose (sugar). Diabetes can damage the cardiovascular system by producing abnormalities in lipoproteins that may speed up atherosclerosis. It also affects cholesterol levels. People with diabetes can help control it by working with their doctor to change eating habits, control weight and get regular exercise.
Many scientists have noted a relationship between heart attack and a person’s stress. A person may overeat or smoke continually from nervous tension, which can contribute to heart attack risk. The exact effects of stress on the heart aren’t fully known, and more research is needed.
Alcohol, in moderation, has been cited as having a protective effect against heart attack. But too much alcohol can raise blood pressure, promote weight gain and even produce heartbeat irregularity. If you don’t drink, don’t start. And if you do drink, do so in moderation. (The beneficial effects of alcohol stop after about two 6-ounce glasses of wine or two beers for men; less for some women.) You should quit drinking if you notice even one negative effect. When you talk to your doctor, you may want to discuss your alcohol intake.