book pages shaped into a heart

Are You at Risk for Heart Disease? How to Know

By Leah Campbell
Reviewed by Daniel Lew, M.D.
April 04, 2022

We all know having heart disease can have serious consequences. Heart disease is a leading cause of death in the United States—it kills about 655,000 Americans a year. There are certain risk factors associated with an increased likelihood for developing heart disease. Understanding and managing the risk factors is one of the best ways to protect yourself from succumbing to that fate.

Traditional Risk Factors for Heart Disease

There are three key risk factors known to increase the risk for heart disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. According to the CDC, roughly half of all Americans have at least one of these three risk factors.

Barry Sears, Ph.D., a biochemist and researcher at the Inflammation Research Foundation, explains that these risk factors lead to unresolved, chronic, low-level inflammation in blood vessels throughout the body, including those blood vessels to your heart. That inflammation can cause plaques to build up, which can lead to poor blood flow and blood clots, and ultimately, heart attacks.

High Blood Pressure:High blood pressure is an effect of either an increased length of blood vessels, obesity, or increased resistance,” says Leann Poston, M.D., a licensed physician in Ohio with Invigor Medical. All of those can result in overworking the heart.

High Cholesterol: High levels of two specific forms of LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) called oxidized LDL and lipoprotein (a) can be very predictive of potential heart disease, says Sears. These cholesterol levels can be measured by your doctor through blood work.

Smoking: Smoking constricts blood vessels and also increases resistance, Poston explains.

An additional key risk factor is diabetes. In diabetes, a person’s body isn’t able to regulate the glucose (sugar) levels in the blood the way it should. Poston explains that with diabetes, high blood sugar is known to damage the lining of small blood vessels, which can then lead to high blood pressure due to increased resistance.

“This requires the heart to pump against more resistance,” she says, meaning it has to work harder.

Other Conditions Associated with Heart Disease

There are other conditions that have been linked to heart disease including obesity, anxiety and depression, sleep apnea, stroke, chronic obstructive lung disease, and psoriasis, says Poston. According to research, others include low vision, back and neck problems, osteoarthritis, and cancer.

Establishing cause and effect with comorbidities often proves difficult—did one condition cause the other, or are they both simply more likely to occur due to underlying factors associated with each condition? Researchers don’t always know, and individual circumstances can often make a difference.

Take Control of Your Heart Health

Some factors associated with an increased risk of heart disease are ultimately outside a person’s control. You can’t help it if you’ve been diagnosed with psoriasis or if high blood pressure or high cholesterol runs in your family, for example. However, you can decide how to manage these conditions. Additionally, there are likely to be certain factors you can control, and through lifestyle modifications, you can decrease the risk of heart disease.

“Eat a diet high in antioxidants and healthy fats,” advises Poston. “Avoid high fructose corn syrup and trans fats.”

And if you’re a smoker, research has shown that quitting smoking can decrease your risk of heart disease significantly.

Increasing your physical activity, eating a diet low in saturated and trans fats, getting your weight to a healthy BMI range, reducing stress, and limiting alcohol are all lifestyle changes that can help reduce risk, as well.

The CDC further recommends taking control of your medical conditions through treatment and following the advice of your doctors whenever possible.

Change can feel overwhelming but it doesn’t have to be. Taking those steps starts by talking to you doctor and embracing a healthier lifestyle overall—choosing to live healthier today can help you enjoy tomorrow.

You May Also Like: