While there’s no one cause of heart disease, there are some factors that can increase your risk for developing it. View the slideshow to learn more.
What is Heart Disease?
Heart disease is a broad term that refers to any malady of the heart or blood vessels, including hypertension, arrhythmia and atherosclerosis. The breadth of conditions it covers as well as the severity of any condition involving the cardiovascular system make heart disease the leading cause of death in the developing world.
High Blood Pressure
Blood pressure guidelines (2017) indicate that blood pressure above 120/80 is considered high and increases the risk for adverse cardiovascular events. High blood pressure can strain or damage coronary arteries, causing plaque (fat, cholesterol and other substances) to build up to the point of slowing or blocking blood flow.
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that your body needs to function properly. In fact, we tend to divide cholesterol into “good cholesterol” (HDL) and “bad cholesterol” (LDL). While HDL can actually help your body get rid of the bad cholesterol, too much LDL can build up in your arteries, blocking or reducing blood flow to vital organs.
Diabetes is a condition that affects how your body produces or responds to insulin, a hormone that regulates the amount of glucose (a sugar) in the blood. Over time, this excess in blood sugar can damage nerves that control the heart and blood vessel, as well as the blood vessels themselves.
In addition to the physical stress carrying excess body fat puts on your body, obesity is also linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, significant risk factors for heart disease.
Diets high in saturated and trans fats, sodium and cholesterol can put you at risk for heart disease by exacerbating common risk factors, in addition to being linked to obesity.
If it seems like a lot of these “things that increase your risk for x” include bad diet and lack of exercise, it’s because maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle is your best defense against developing conditions that cause or complicate other disorders. Regular physical activity, particularly cardiovascular exercise, can help keep your heart strong, head clear and body weight down.
You don’t need a doctor to tell you that smoking is bad for you and the people around you. Not only can it damage your heart and blood vessels, nicotine raises blood pressure while the smoke itself reduces your blood oxygen levels.
While stress itself may not cause heart disease, the effect it has on your mental and physical health increases your risk. Anxiety and depression can raise your blood pressure, trigger overeating, make physical activity difficult or cause you to seek substances like tobacco or alcohol to cope.
While it is clear that there is a genetic component to heart disease, the exact genes and their transmission has not yet been entirely mapped out. It has however been clearly shown that several risk factors for heart disease like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol have a hereditary component. If you have a family history of heart disease or a family history of risk factors such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, you need to be extra careful about your health and monitoring all these parameters.
Age, Race, and Other Things You Can’t Control
While some risk factors are caused or exacerbated by lifestyle, others are beyond your control. Your risk for developing heart disease increases as you age. It’s a more common cause of death in non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic blacks, and American Indians than it is for Hispanics, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Complications during pregnancy, such as gestational diabetes or preeclampsia, increases your risk, too.
Are You at Risk for Heart Disease?
It’s important to know that being at an increased risk doesn’t mean you’ll actually develop heart disease. Many of the effects of these risks can be reduced with proper management. Speak to your primary care provider about your particular risks and what you can do to mitigate them. Or learn more about Washington Hospital’s Heart and Vascular Programs on the Washington Hospital website.