In observance of American Heart Month this February, we want to encourage everyone to take a moment to evaluate your heart health. The best way to do that is to understand the main causes of heart disease and learn what you can do to minimize your risk of a coronary event (i.e., heart attack). Doing so can also help lower your risk of other health problems, including stroke, blood clots, and related health conditions.
Note that the term “heart disease” can refer to several heart conditions, including angina, arrhythmias, and congenital heart defects. Primarily, however, it refers to coronary artery disease, which is caused by atherosclerosis – a process by which fats and cholesterol build up and cause blood vessels to become hard and brittle, leading to clogged arteries and ultimately a heart attack or stroke.
That said, here are the primary risk factors for cardiovascular disease that most people have the ability to control.
Smoking Overworks Your Heart and Hardens Your Arteries
In this day and age it should be no surprise that smoking is bad for you. But while most people understand the connection between smoking and lung cancer, what many people may not realize is that smoking also has a negative effect on your heart.
Nicotine, the addictive substance in cigarettes (including e-cigarettes), stimulates an adrenaline rush, making your heart beat faster and therefore works overtime. Cigarette smoking also produces carbon monoxide, which reduces the amount of oxygen in your bloodstream and causes your heart to work harder to provide oxygen to your body.
In addition to making your heart work harder, smoking damages the lining of your arteries. This causes an increase in the buildup of fatty material in your artery walls, which can increase blood pressure and lead to angina, strokes or heart attacks. Note that breathing second-hand smoke also has these same effects of increasing the risk for heart disease.
Physical Inactivity and Obesity Are Bad For Your Heart
The sad truth is that most of us do not get enough exercise, and our sedentary lifestyles are having a poor impact on our hearts. Just like other muscles in your body, your heart needs regular exercise to keep it strong and healthy.
Inactivity can lead to all sorts of problems, including excessive weight gain, increased lipids (fats and waxy substances) in your blood, hypertension, and stress. Exercising regularly, however, can reduce all of these risk factors and significantly improve your chances of avoiding a heart failure down the road.
The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity and moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity weekly to improve your heart health.AHA
Poor Diets Lead to Poor Heart Health
If you exercise but continue eating foods that are bad for you, then you’re still putting yourself at risk of developing heart disease. In particular, a diet high in saturated fats, trans fats, and refined carbohydrates is going to dramatically increase your chances of experiencing a coronary event at some point in your lifetime.
Unfortunately, these “bad fats” are found in most of the things that taste good to many people, including various dairy and beef products, confections, and snack foods. It can be hard to avoid them, but the good news is that growing awareness has led to more heart-healthy options that don’t include the saturated and trans fats which can cause you problems. Just be sure to look for “partially hydrogenated oils,” as well, since those are just bad fats in disguise.
In addition to avoiding foods with bad fats, it’s also important to watch your intake of sodium (salt) which can lead to high blood pressure/hypertension.
Foods Containing Saturated Fats and Trans Fats
- Beef and beef fat (tallow)
- Breakfast sandwiches
- Candies with cream or “creme”
- Cinnamon rolls
- Coffee creamer (non-dairy)
- Coconut oil
- Corn chips / tortilla chips
- Fried foods (chicken, french fries, etc.)
- Frozen pizzas
- Granola bars
- Ice cream
- Iced drinks/shakes
- Milk (whole and 2%)
- Palm oil / palm kernel oil
- Peanut butter
- Poultry skin
- Popcorn (microwaveable)
- Potato chips
- Snack mixes
Unsure of what to eat? It’s actually fairly simple. Stick to vegetables (a lot), fruits (some), whole grains (a little) and fish and lean poultry or game meats over beef or lamb. You should also avoid drinking a lot of alcohol.
Other Risk Factors for Heart Disease
The things above are the biggest controllable risk factors of heart disease, but there are other things you can watch out for. Some of these can be controlled, while others are genetic.
High Cholesterol: There are two forms of cholesterol – high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). High levels of LDL cholesterol – also known as “bad cholesterol” – can lead to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, and people with high blood cholesterol levels are twice as likely to develop heart disease. This can often be managed through a healthy diet and medication, such as blood thinners like Xarelto or Pradaxa.
Type 2 Diabetes: Diabetes arises out of insulin resistance, during which the body is unable to properly regulate blood sugar levels. Type II diabetes most often results from a lack of physical activity and/or poor diet choices that cause weight gain.
Stress: Stress can cause a number of physiological responses, such as an increased heart rate and higher blood pressure, that are bad for your heart. In addition, it can lead to unhealthy activities, such as overeating, smoking, or excessive alcohol consumption.
Family History: Your family members’ health may have a deep impact on your heart disease risk. People who have an immediate family member (brother, sister, or parent) who have heart disease are significantly more likely to develop heart disease in their lifetime.
Genetics: Conditions like congenital heart defects, which form before birth, can result in an arrhythmia or other abnormality that weaken the heart weak and increase the amount of work it has to do to maintain a “normal” lifestyle. Over time, an overworked or deformed heart muscle is at risk for a plethora of different issues.
Age and Gender: The older you are, the greater your risk for heart disease and sudden cardiac events. In people under 55, men have a higher risk than women for developing heart disease. However, after going through menopause, women’s risk increases to about the men their age.
Race: There is evidence that some minorities, including African and Hispanic Americans, having a higher incidence of heart disease. Up to 44% of African American men and 48% of African American women have some form of heart disease.
Live Healthy – And Get Yourself Checked Out!
Ultimately, heart disease prevention often includes a number of lifestyle changes, including:
- Exercise regularly
- Avoid foods with saturated and trans fats
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Avoid bad habits like smoking and alcohol use
- Go to the doctor regularly
If you are doing all of these things, then you’ll greatly reduce the risk of having a heart attack or other event related to coronary heart disease.