Some risk factors are beyond your control. If you have one or more of these non-controllable risk factors, you may want to pay special attention to reducing the risk factors that you can control. All of the following risk factors can be controlled and doing so may lower your risk of developing heart disease.
High blood pressure is defined as resting systolic pressure (the pressure when the heart contracts) above 140 mm Hg and/or resting diastolic pressure (the pressure when the heart is relaxed) above 90 mm Hg. It contributes to the development of heart disease in two ways: by making the heart work harder than normal which may cause the heart to enlarge and become weaker over time, and by damaging the arteries contributing to atherosclerosis. While the cause of elevated blood pressure is often unknown, lowering your blood pressure with medication may significantly reduce your chance of developing heart disease or if you already have heart disease, make progression or the disease less likely.
High levels of blood cholesterol, a lipid molecule that is used in all cells and in the synthesis of some hormones, raise the risk of heart disease and heart attack. Two kinds of cholesterol are recognized. LDL (low density lipoprotein) is a protein/cholesterol complex which carries cholesterol from the liver through the blood to all cells of the body, and HDL (high density lipoprotein) which carries cholesterol from cells back to the liver.
LDL is known as the "bad" cholesterol because high levels of LDL raise heart disease risk. LDL levels above 160 mg/dL increase the risk of cholesterol adhering to the walls of blood vessels and causing the plaques that lead to atherosclerosis. Levels of LDL below 100mg/dL are considered optimal and may lower your risk of developing heart disease or worsening existing heart disease. LDL levels increase when your diet contains a lot of saturated fats, cholesterol, and trans fats and decrease when you restrict your intake of these foods.
HDL is called "good" cholesterol because it represents cholesterol being sent to the liver and removed from the blood. High levels of HDL may reduce the risk of heart disease: 60mg/dL or above is considered protective, while below 40mg/dL is a major risk factor.
Triglycerides are the most plentiful type of fat in the body. They are the molecules stored by fat cells for use when energy is needed. Levels of blood triglycerides above 200mg/dL are considered high, while levels below 150mg/dL are considered low and may be protective against heart disease. High triglycerides are especially a problem when combined with high LDL and low HDL levels.
Obesity is defined as having a body mass index above 30 and raises the risk of heart disease. Belly fat contributes most to the effect. To find your BMI, multiply your weight in pounds by 705, divide by your height in inches, then divide again by your height in inches.
While it is often difficult to lose all of your excess weight, even a modest amount of weight loss may help lower your risk of heart disease. Losing even five percent of your body weight may help lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Improved diet and increased physical activity can help control weight and improve your cardiovascular health.
While developing diabetes is not always controllable, managing your diabetes is. Diabetics have difficulty regulating their blood sugar due to an inability to make or respond to insulin. They also tend to have low levels of the "good" HDL cholesterol. It is important to manage your diabetes by checking your blood sugar often and avoiding foods with high glycemic index that cause a spike in blood sugar. Medications are available that may help diabetics manage their disease better than ever before. Regular medical check ups and controlled blood pressure are critical to maintaining cardiovascular health for those with diabetes. Unfortunately, even well-controlled diabetes still increases one's risk of heart disease.
Lack of physical activity is a risk factor for heart disease because it contributes to the development of several other risk factors including: high blood pressure, low HDL and high LDL levels, obesity, and increased risk of diabetes. Regular, moderate-to-vigorous exercise is important to reduce the risk of heart and blood vessel disease because exercise can help control blood cholesterol, diabetes and obesity as well as help lower blood pressure in some people. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times per week or 20 minutes of vigorous exercise three times per week to benefit the heart and lungs.
The single most preventable risk factor for heart disease is cigarette smoking. Smokers face double the risk of heart attack than non-smokers and are also more likely to die if they do have a heart attack. Smoking is the single greatest risk factor for sudden cardiac arrest. Secondhand smoke can also increase the risk of heart disease.
Quitting smoking lowers blood pressure, raises HDL levels and begins to reverse some of the damage done to the heart and vessels from tobacco smoke. If you smoke, quit now and over time your risk of heart disease will return to the same level as a non-smoker.