By Courtney R Virgilio, MD, FACC, FASE

Heart Disease is the #1 killer of both men and women. The most common form of heart disease refers to coronary artery disease (CAD) or blockages in the form of plaque that build up in the arteries of your heart. If the blockages become significant enough, your heart won’t get the blood flow (oxygen and nutrients) it needs to pump blood around your body. This raises your risk of a heart attack, which is when the heart can no longer do its job with the blood flow it has. There are many risk factors for heart disease, some we can control and some we cannot:

Risk Factors:

  1. Age – our risk for heart disease increases with age.
  2. Family history – individuals with heart disease in their family have an increased risk of developing it as well.
  3. Gender – Men have a higher risk of heart disease, but women are more likely to die of their heart disease than are men.
  4. Hypertension (high blood pressure) – when the force of the blood against the walls of your blood vessels is consistently too high. Blood pressure goals should be specific to you and your risk, but generally speaking, blood pressure >140/90 is considered hypertension.
  5. Diabetes – people with diabetes have blood sugar levels that are too high, either because they don’t produce enough insulin or their body doesn’t use it effectively.
  6. Abnormal Cholesterol Levels (high LDL, low HDL, high triglycerides) – plaque that can build up in your arteries contains cholesterol, which is a soft, fatty substance which can block blood flow to vital organs like the heart, resulting in a heart attack, or brain, leading to a stroke.
  7. Tobacco use – linked with many health problems from increased risk of heart attack (more than doubles the risk), stroke, respiratory diseases, to cancer.
  8. Overweight/obesity – gauged from Body Mass Index (BMI); one of the most preventable and modifiable risk factors.
  9. Inactivity – in addition to being a strong risk factor for CAD, this also contributes to other risk factors like obesity, hypertension, and abnormal cholesterol levels.
  10. Unhealthy food choices – diets high in salt, sugar, processed foods, red meat, saturated fat, trans fat, are unhealthy and linked to higher rates of heart disease.

The bottom-line is that you can pick your friends but not your family, and as we age, our risk increases. However, many things are in our control and how we wear our genes/jeans is up to us…how we live, what we do with our time (exercise or not, smoke or not), and what we eat. If you develop one of the medical problems above like hypertension, diabetes, or high cholesterol, treat it to prevent downstream consequences.

Quick Tips/Recommendations for Heart Disease Prevention:

  • Don’t smoke.
  • Establish care with a doctor you trust to have your health monitored and to discuss your health risks and what you can do to improve your risk profile.
  • Be screened for high blood pressure, diabetes, and abnormal cholesterol levels, and if these are present, treat them!
  • Eat fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, lean meat, nuts, and legumes.
  • Limit saturated fat, trans fat, salt, sugar, red meat.
  • Use up the calories you take in…The American Heart Association recommends moderate physical activity (30-40 minutes) most days of the week but at least 3-4 days/week.

It is never too late to adopt a healthier lifestyle, and there is a lot we can do together to lower further the rates of people dying from heart disease.

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