The more you know, the better you can take steps to prevent heart disease. “Risk factors” are things that raise a person’s chances of having a disease. There are a number of risk factors that can make you more likely to get heart disease. The more risk factors, the greater your chances.
There are some major risk factors that a person cannot change. These include:
- Male sex
- Family history
Good news: There are also major risk factors you can change. While you can’t control everything, you can make choices in your life that cut heart disease risk. Here are the major risk factors you can do something about:
Smoking: The risk that smokers will develop heart disease is much higher for smokers than nonsmokers. Smoking can also raise the risk of death in people with heart disease. Even breathing other people’s smoke can up your risk. Avoid being around cigarette smoke. (Need help quitting? Get some resources and tools.)
High LDL “bad” cholesterol: As your LDL cholesterol goes up, so does your risk for heart disease. Eating a healthy diet that is lower in saturated fat and added sugars is one way to help. Foods high in soluble fiber can also lower cholesterol. Getting regular exercise helps keep your cholesterol down, too. Cholesterol medication can also lower your risk for cardiovascular problems. Talk to your doctor to see if they’re right for you.
High blood pressure: High blood pressure makes your heart work harder. That causes the muscle to thicken, which is not good for your heart. Eating a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables and is low in sodium can help lower blood pressure. Staying active and drinking alcohol only in moderation also help lower blood pressure.
Physical inactivity: Lack of exercise raises your risk for heart disease. Activity keeps your heart and blood vessels healthy. Exercise also improves cholesterol and blood pressure and helps control blood sugar. Even light activities like walking have big benefits. Look for ways to add more movement to your day.
Being overweight: Extra pounds can raise your risk for heart disease. Losing weight can also lower other risk factors for heart disease like high cholesterol and diabetes. Taking off as little as 3-5% of your body weight can do a lot to lessen your risk.
Diabetes: If you have diabetes, you are at a higher risk for heart disease and complications of heart disease. But, controlling your blood sugar lowers those risks. If you have diabetes, keep working with your doctor to manage it. Change any other habits you can to improve other risk factors.
Other factors that can contribute to heart disease risk include:
These are examples of how your daily choices can play a role in those major risk factors. Stress can lead to poor food choices. That can cause you to put on weight. Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure and also cause weight gain. What and how much you eat plays a big role in most other risk factors.
But there’s a lot you can do to stay in control. Taking walks or meditating are just two choices that can help you manage stress. Limiting alcohol to no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women can help you manage blood pressure. (According to the American Heart Association, one drink is 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.)
Eating a healthy diet is one of the best tools for keeping your heart healthy. Focus on foods like veggies, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, and fish. Limit foods high in saturated fat and added sugar. Combined with being active, eating well can help you stay at a healthy weight and keep other risk factors at bay.