Heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women. Over 700,000 Americans experience a heart attack every year. You may already be taking steps to reduce your risk, but how do you know if you’re doing enough?
In 1948, the National Heart Institute, which is now known as the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), started the Framingham Heart Study to learn more about heart disease and stroke. The researchers followed over 5,000 participants in Framingham, Massachusetts throughout their lifetime to determine the common risk factors for cardiovascular disease. In 1971, a second-generation group, which was made up of the children of the original group and their spouses, was enrolled.
As a result of this long-term study, scientists have determined key risk factors that can increase your chance of experiencing heart disease or a heart attack over your lifetime. By tracking your risk factors, you can determine how aggressive you need to be in adopting lifestyle changes and treatments.
Your risk for heart disease increases as you age, regardless of your other risk factors. The risk increases for men after the age of 45 and for women after the age of 55, or after menopause. The hormone estrogen is thought to help protect the heart. This is why when estrogen levels drop in a woman’s body after menopause, her risk of heart disease also increases.
Over time, the gradual buildup of fatty plaques in the arteries can become a problem. As you get older, the arteries may narrow. Sometimes, a blood clot can form and block your blood flow. This can cause a heart attack.
Men are at higher risk of heart disease than women. It’s estimated that 70 to 89 percent of sudden cardiac events occur in men. So far, scientists aren’t sure why this is, but studies have indicated that sex hormones may be a cause.
One study found that two sex hormones are linked to increased levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is considered bad cholesterol, and low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is considered good cholesterol. Another study indicated that the Y chromosome, which is unique to men, might also have something to do with it. Regardless of the reason, men are at a higher risk for heart disease overall and they tend to develop it at an earlier age than women. However, heart disease is also the leading cause of death in women.
Your Total Cholesterol Levels
Your total cholesterol is a potential risk factor for heart disease. This is the sum of all of the cholesterol in your blood. Cholesterol is a key part of the plaque that can build up in your arteries. Plaque consists of fat, calcium, and other substances. The theory is that the more cholesterol you have in your blood, the higher the chances are that your cholesterol may be converted into plaque buildup in your arteries. Cholesterol levels are categorized in the following way:
- normal cholesterol: less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL)
- borderline high cholesterol: 200 to 239 mg/dL
- high cholesterol: 240 mg/dL or higher
The higher your total cholesterol levels, the higher your risk of heart disease.
Your HDL Cholesterol Levels
Scientists have discovered that all cholesterol isn’t the same. HDL cholesterol is protective against heart disease. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why, but they believe that it helps to reduce inflammation, which contributes to heart health. It also helps shuttle cholesterol to the liver, where it can be processed out of the body. The general consensus is that the higher your HDL level, the lower your risk of heart disease.
Generally, an HDL level lower than 40 mg/dL increases your risk of heart disease. HDL above 60 mg/dL may offer protection against heart disease.
Your Smoking History
Smoking increases your overall risk of heart disease. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes harm the heart and blood vessels, increasing your risk of artery narrowing, or atherosclerosis.
This risk increases even if you only smoke once in awhile. Fortunately, no matter how much or how long you’ve smoked, quitting will benefit your heart. For example:
- Quitting reduces your risk of developing heart disease.
- Quitting reduces your risk of dying from heart disease.
- Over time, quitting lowers your risk of your arteries narrowing.
- Quitting can help reverse heart and blood vessel damage.
Your Blood Pressure
The first number of your blood pressure reading can also give you a clue about your risk of heart disease. This is called the “systolic” blood pressure. This is the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats, or contracts. The second number is the “diastolic” number. This is the pressure in your arteries between heartbeats, which is when the heart muscle relaxes.
The systolic measurement typically increases with age. It’s considered more indicative of heart disease risk. This is due to increasing stiffness in the arteries and the long-term buildup of plaque. Here are some blood pressure guidelines:
- normal blood pressure: less than 120 mm Hg
- prehypertension: 120 to 139 mm Hg
- stage 1 high blood pressure: 140 to 159 mm Hg
- stage 2 high blood pressure: 160 mm Hg or higher
Taking medications to reduce your blood pressure lowers your risk of having a heart attack.
Whether or Not You Have Diabetes
Many heart disease risk calculators have added diabetes to the list. If you have diabetes, you’re at least twice as likely as someone who doesn’t have diabetes to have heart disease.
Over time, high blood glucose levels, or blood sugar, can increase the deposits of fatty materials in artery and blood vessel walls. This increases the chances for artery narrowing and hardening, which is known as atherosclerosis.
Visit the American Heart Association website to use a complete heart risk calculator. After answering a few questions about your blood pressure, cholesterol, and fasting blood sugar levels, the site will give you your percentage of risk. Be sure to get regular checkups with your doctor to manage all of your risk factors and to keep your risk of heart disease as low as possible.