You’re probably aware that conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity, unhealthy levels of cholesterol, smoking and not exercising increase your chances of developing heart disease. But there’s more to it than that. Do you want the good news first, or the bad news?
The good news is that, for the most part, you can lower your risk by making healthy lifestyle choices, such as eating less fat and more vegetables, not smoking and exercising regularly.
The bad news is that the more risk factors you have, the greater your risk for developing a range of heart and blood vessel diseases, including chest pain, heart attack, stroke and circulatory problems. In fact, having two or more risk factors more than doubles your risk of these diseases.
Here’s how it works. When you have more than one risk factor, they increase your heart disease risk by more than if they were just added up. For instance, if a person has one risk factor, it increases the probability of having another; with the addition of each risk factor, your risk level goes from two-fold to four-fold to eight-fold. The increase in risk is called a “multiplicative” effect. It happens because the effects of each factor enhance the effects of the others. Since they’re all affecting your heart and blood vessels, each one can make the others worse.
In order of importance, the top five factors that increase your risk of having a heart attack are:
- Abnormal levels of cholesterol in your blood
- High blood pressure
- Obesity around the waistline
Some people are surprised that diabetes is on this list, but it’s a powerful risk factor for a variety of blood vessel diseases. Researchers have found that people who have diabetes with no history of heart disease have the same risk of having a future heart attack or stroke as non-diabetics who already have a history of heart disease.
Fortunately, all of these risk factors are “modifiable” – they can be changed with diet and exercise. Together they account for about 80% of each person’s risk of heart attack. There are other risk factors too, such as your sex, older age and an inherited tendency to get heart disease, but these can't be changed.
Figuring out your personal risk level is more than a matter of counting risk factors – individual factors vary in terms of how much they contribute to your total risk. For example, the more cigarettes you smoke per day, the greater your risk. The higher your blood pressure or “bad” cholesterol (LDL-cholesterol) level, the greater your risk. Different combinations of risk factors vary too. There is no single formula for everyone. However, if you talk to your doctor, he or she can give you a pretty good idea of how high your personal risk is.
You can work on lowering your risk of heart attack and stroke even if you don’t know exactly how high it is. Making healthy changes in your diet and adding physical activity to your life can combat these risk factors – even lowering blood pressure and LDL-cholesterol levels and preventing diabetes. So, no matter how many risk factors you have, you can reduce them through your personal choices. Take heart!
Please speak to your healthcare professional before starting any new exercise program.