Are You at Risk of Heart Disease? Know the Risk Factors

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Written by Komalpreet Kaur

Americans and Canadians are more likely to die from heart disease than any other disease. Fortunately, most deaths from heart disease can be prevented by recognizing symptoms early enough and seeking medical attention. And no matter what your perceived risks are, it’s extremely important to know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack, as there have been cases where people with no known risk factors still experience them.

This article will give you the insight you need to understand signs and symptoms, risk factors and common myths associated with heart disease.

Warning signs: 

Here are a few warning signs of heart disease as stated in the Mayo Clinic’s book Healthy Heart for Life. If you ever experience any of the symptoms below, please have them checked out by a medical professional:

  • Chest pain or discomfort often noticed with physical activity or emotional stress, which goes away when you rest
  • Unusual tiredness
  • Shortness of breath during normal physical activities

If you have any of these symptoms, contact emergency services immediately:

  • Unexpected chest pain or discomfort that doesn’t go away after a few minutes or occurs when you are resting 
  • Discomfort in other areas of your upper body such as your arms, shoulders, back, neck,  jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath that doesn’t go away
  • Severe weakness, lightheadedness, cold sweat or fainting
  • Severe indigestion or heartburn that lasts more than a few minutes, feeling sick to your stomach, vomiting or abdominal discomfort

These symptoms can be more subtle especially in women, so don’t delay and get yourself checked out. Remember, the delay can be deadly!

Common myths about heart diseases

    1. ‘There is nothing I can do about it’: If you have a strong family history of heart disease,  that doesn’t mean you are destined to get heart disease and you cannot do anything about it. There are effective ways to prevent it.
    2. ‘I don’t have to worry. Heart disease doesn’t run in my family’: Assuming that you won’t get heart disease because you don’t have a family history doesn’t mean you are immune to heart disease. Most of the risks of heart disease are associated with choices you make in your daily life such as eating habits, level of physical activity.
    3. Only old people get heart disease’: The chances of getting heart disease increases as a person gets older. Most people fail to understand that lifestyle habits formed during childhood or early adulthood can be a threat to heart health. Even in children, plaques start to build up in arteries. People should start forming healthy habits early, as what they do in their youth affects their lives later.
    4. ‘I’ll know if I have a heart problem because I’ll have symptoms’: Sometimes a heart attack is the first sign of a heart problem. 50% of men and 64% of women who’ve had heart attacks showed no symptoms of heart disease before the attack. People with heart valve problems also may not experience symptoms.
    5. ‘Heart disease is more of a man’s issue than a woman’s issue’: Heart disease is a leading cause of death and disability in women. Women are hesitant to seek help with heart-related symptoms and also less likely to make lifestyle changes to help prevent heart disease.
    6. ‘I’ll change my lifestyle if I get in trouble’: It’s never too early to start. We often don’t feel the need to change our lifestyles if nothing is wrong, instead of waiting until after something happens to make meaningful changes. Unfortunately, you can’t prevent heart disease once you have a heart attack or heart problem—only the quality of life can be improved later. 
    7. But I’m already living a healthy lifestyle’: A lot of us think we’re healthier than we really are. There is often a difference between what we think we know about healthy behaviours and what we do. The four primary behaviours recommended for heart health are not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruits and exercising regularly.

It’s important to be aware of potential risk factors. Plus, when you reduce your risk factors for heart disease, you also reduce your risk factors for various other diseases such as dementia, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, erectile dysfunction and blindness.

Risk factors:

Dr. Beth Abramson in her book says “Heart disease is due to bad luck, bad living and bad genes”. This pretty much sums up the major risk factors of heart diseases.

Personal and Family History:

It’s important to build your medical history. It begins with consulting a doctor and understanding your health status. Your doctor can also help you understand how health issues like sleep apnea, being overweight, anemia, and kidney disease can be risks for heart disease. You should also be aware of your family history, specifically how many of your first-degree relatives (parents, siblings or children) have heart disease. Any man or woman with a parent with heart disease has a two times greater risk than a peer with no family history.

Smoking: 

Smoking increases the risk of heart diseases, respiratory diseases, and cancer. The amount of risk associated with smoking and having a heart attack or stroke is even higher when people start smoking at a young age. Smoking narrows your blood vessels, raises blood pressure and increases the risk of blood clots. Any type of smoking is a preventable risk factor—second-hand smoke increases the risk of heart disease by 30%.

Cholesterol, Hypertension and Diabetes:

Cholesterol is the fat in your blood. HDL is high-density lipoprotein, which is good and should be high. LDL, on the other hand, is low-density and having high levels of it is bad, as it promotes the buildup of plaque in blood vessels. 

The impact of cholesterol levels on heart disease is significant. Ask your doctor to regularly check your cholesterol levels if you are a man over 40 years, a woman over 50 years, or if you have other risk factors.

Hypertension means high blood pressure. It’s also known as a silent killer as it damages and scars the arteries. If not treated it can cause stroke, heart attack or heart failure. According to Hypertension Canada, reducing your blood pressure by a small amount can reduce your risk of heart failure by 50%.

Diabetes occurs when your blood glucose levels are too high. High blood glucose levels can also contribute to plaque buildup in arteries. Adults with diabetes caused by an unhealthy lifestyle are two or three times more prone to heart disease than adults who do not have diabetes.

Weight:

Nearly 1/4 of Canadians and more than 2/3 American adults are overweight or obese and it has a staggering effect on their health, increasing the risk of heart disease or conditions leading to heart diseases such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or pre-diabetes, and sleep apnea. Being overweight or obese also reduces your lifespan by 3 years. Body Mass Index can be used as a measure to know if you are overweight or not.

Use the Body Mass Index Table for reference.

It’s important to note that what’s more important is making healthy food choices and staying healthy on the inside, rather than just a lean body achieved through a strict diet as looks can be deceiving.

Sedentary lifestyle: 

An active body = a healthy body

Out of all the other risk factors for heart disease, a sedentary lifestyle is most common. Being inactive can be detrimental to your heart health. Sitting on your couch or your office chair for hours per day makes you more prone to obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels in the blood, and also increases your risk for diabetes. Little or no physical activity level, when paired with unhealthy food choices, is dangerous to your heart health. 

Sleep: 

People who are sleep deprived most of the time or who do not enjoy a good slumber are more likely to be at risk for heart disease, regardless of age, gender, weight, and eating habits. Not getting enough sleep consistently can lead to an increase in blood pressure during the day, which leads to a greater chance for heart disease in the long term. 

Stress can also increase blood pressure and blood sugar levels, increasing the risk of heart disease.

Socio-economic status: 

More money= Easy access to better medical care

People at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum are at higher risk for heart disease.

This is due, in part, to not having the financial freedom to buy healthier food choices (junk food is cheaper than fruits and green groceries). People with low economic status are also more inclined to smoking, one of the four major risk factors.

Steps toward a healthy heart

  • Be extra cautious if you have a family history of heart disease
  • Quit smoking
  • Maintain a healthy weight 
  • Switch to healthy food habits such as including more fruits and vegetables, as well as grains in your meals
  • Eat breakfast
  • Be physically active
  • If you have a sedentary working environment or lifestyle, stand for a few minutes, go for a walk, or climb the stairs to take breaks from sitting for long hours
  • Switch to walking or cycling instead of driving
  • Engage in physical activities you enjoy
  • Calm your mind by meditating every day to keep stress levels in check long term
  • Sleep for 8 hours a night
  • Schedule regular visits with your doctor and understand your health status and family history
  • If on any medication, be sure to take it on time

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