Most people associate their risk of heart disease to be related to how much fat they eat. While they are correlated, our fat intake isn’t the only factor that puts us at an increased risk. Other leading factors are high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, smoking, obesity, unhealthy diet, and lack of physical activity. Some less common factors that can increase your risk include sleep disorders, regular migraines, height, gum disease, and even loneliness. Today we will break down the main risk factors and how they relate to heart disease, plus give you tips to prevent or manage them.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease is the leading cause of adult deaths in the U.S. It is defined as a series of heart conditions that can cause deterioration and reduced function of the heart. Blood vessel damage and blood clots are among the issues seen with heart disease. Heart disease is more prevalent among adults over 50, and men are more likely to get the disease at a younger age than women.
According to the CDC, Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) is the most common form of heart disease in the United States. CAD is the buildup of plaque in the heart’s arteries. Plaque buildup is commonly caused by fat, which is where the correlation between our fat intake and heart disease comes in. Plaque buildup limits the amount of space our blood has to flow through and into the heart. This can cause chest pain, weakness, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, and pain in the arms and shoulders. If not treated, the buildup can grow bigger and increase your risk for heart attack.
How am I at risk for heart disease?
High Blood Pressure (Hypertension):
High blood pressure increases your risk because it can cause damage to your heart’s arteries if it stays high for a long time. The damage usually consists of weakened arteries, which are less elastic and can lead to blockages. Blockages can be fatal in the form of a heart attack or stroke.
Hypertension is known as the silent killer because it doesn’t always have obvious symptoms. Causes of hypertension include being overweight, eating too much sodium, smoking tobacco, not getting enough physical activity, gender, race, and age. Men are more likely than women to have high blood pressure. Similarly, hypertension is much more common in African American adults compared to white, Asian, or Hispanic adults. Unfortunately, getting older also puts us at an increased risk of hypertension.
Weight loss, regular physical activity, and minimizing our sodium intake can all help lower hypertension. Stress can also impact our blood pressure, so it is crucial to minimize it wherever possible.
Type 2 Diabetes:
Type 2 diabetes, specifically uncontrolled type 2 diabetes, increases your risk of heart disease. High blood glucose levels, as seen in uncontrolled diabetes, damages our blood vessels and nerves. If the vessels and nerves around our heart are affected, our chances of getting heart disease are greater.
If you have type 2 diabetes, your chances of having high blood pressure, increased LDL or “bad” cholesterol, and high triglycerides are greater simply because you have diabetes.
Managing heart disease and these other health conditions seen with diabetes include following a healthy diet, getting enough physical activity, and being at a healthy weight.
Smoking can cause issues in any area of the body. It affects the heart by increasing triglycerides, lowering HDL or “good” cholesterol, making the blood sticky and increasing blood clot risk, damaging/thickening/narrowing our blood vessels, and increasing plaque buildup.
Breathing second-hand smoke increases the risk of heart disease by 25-30% in people who don’t smoke. Second-hand smoke inhalation damages the lining of our arteries and causes our blood to be stickier. Inhaling secondhand smoke for as little as 30 minutes a day puts non-smokers at the same risk of heart disease as smokers.
Quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke can help lower our risk. It takes about 10 years of not smoking for a smoker to reach a non-smoker’s risk of heart disease.
Being obese can increase our risk through a cascade of effects. Obesity increases inflammation in our bodies. This inflammation can lead to insulin resistance which is when our body cannot metabolize insulin as it should. This causes an increase in blood sugar levels, which, as we know, can contribute to heart disease.
In addition, the way our body stores fat can contribute to our heart disease risk. Those whose bodies accumulate fat around the abdomen vs. those whose store fat around their hips and legs are at a greater risk for heart disease.
Getting enough physical activity, adopting a healthy diet, managing stress, and getting enough sleep are essential factors that can help limit heart disease risk in those who are obese. Losing at least 10% of your weight can also reduce your risk.
Lifestyle Factors contributing to heart disease:
Having a poor diet and not getting enough movement can harm our heart health. Too much sodium in the diet can lead to high blood pressure. If you follow a diet high in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates but low in fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, your risk of heart disease is greater. These poor lifestyle factors can specifically lead to atherosclerosis which is plaque build-up in the arteries.
In addition, physical activity is a key contributor to our heart health. Getting regular movement keeps our hearts strong. It can lower blood pressure, improve our blood sugar, lower cholesterol, manage our weight, and improve stress. Making changes to improve our diet and increase physical activity can greatly reduce our risk of heart disease.
Other factors like gum disease, sleep disorders, regular migraines, and loneliness are not commonly thought of as affecting our hearts. It is important to be aware of them and treat them as they can impact our bodies in more than one localized area.
The bottom line is that adopting a healthy lifestyle with plenty of fruit and vegetable intake, regular movement, less stress, and better sleep quality has a huge impact on our heart health. If you are at risk for heart disease, we recommend managing one thing at a time to prevent feeling overwhelmed. If you’re not sure where to begin, you can always schedule a consultation with one of our dietitians so we can help you set goals to improve your health!