Heart disease is one of several cardiovascular diseases (stroke and high blood pressure are among others) that affect the heart and blood vessel system. When an artery becomes blocked, oxygen and nutrients are prevented from reaching the heart. In time, heart disease can lead to heart attack.
Traditional risk factors for heart disease, which men and women share, can be sorted into two groups:
Modifiable risk factors: Disease factors we can manage, including health conditions and lifestyle choices.
Nonmodifiable risk factors: Disease factors that we cannot control, such as family history and age.
Generally speaking, the major medical conditions that enhance one's risk for heart disease can be controlled with proper diet, moderate exercise and medication. These conditions include:
High blood cholesterol: Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by the liver or consumed in certain foods. Our bodies need some cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL) to protect against heart disease. However, too much "bad" cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL) in the body can be deposited in arteries, including those of the heart, resulting in narrowing of the arteries and heart disease.
High blood pressure: As blood circulates within the arteries, it exerts pressure upon artery walls. When that pressure is higher than what is considered healthy, and stays high over time, it can inflict severe damage the body. Uncontrolled, high blood pressure can lead to heart attack, stroke, heart failure and other complications.
Diabetes: In diabetes, sugars build up in the blood when the body either doesn't make enough insulin, can't use its own insulin as well as it should, or both. Because diabetes can lead to increased deposits of fatty materials in blood vessels, many persons who suffer from diabetes also have high blood pressure.
Behaviors can enhance heart disease by resulting in conditions. Unhealthy lifestyle choices include:
Tobacco use: Cigarette smoking promotes atherosclerosis and increases the levels of blood clotting factors. Nicotine raises blood pressure. Smokers are also at more risk for having a stroke and having peripheral vascular disease: blockages of the arteries in the legs and in the arms.
Poor diet: Diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol raise blood cholesterol levels and promote atherosclerosis. Diets high in salt or sodium increase blood pressure.
Obesity: Excess body fat is linked to conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Physical inactivity: Lack of exercise can impact cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
Excessive alcohol consumption: Reducing alcohol consumption, from excessive drinking to moderate drinking, can help lower blood pressure. Moderate drinking is considered as one drink a day for women of any age, two drinks a day for men under 65 and one drink per day for men over 65.
Family history can play a very important role in contributing to heart disease risk. Along with conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, heart disease tends to "run in the family." In one large study, 14% of families that had a known family history for heart disease accounted for 72% of cases of early heart disease (men before age 55 years, women before age 65 years).
Age is another factor that, sadly, is out of our control. Heart disease risk increases with age. As we reach our elder years, the walls of the heart can thicken and arteries may stiffen and harden. Likewise, the heart often becomes less able to pump blood to the muscles of the body. According to the American Heart Association, 82 percent of people who die of coronary heart disease are 65 or older.