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Know the risk factors for heart disease

Heart disease is leading cause of death in U.S. for men and women

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Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women. 

The term heart disease refers to a wide range of conditions, including arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), heart failure and structural heart conditions, such as heart valve defects. 

But when doctors refer to heart disease, they often mean the most common type, coronary artery disease, which affects the arteries that feed the heart and causes most heart attacks. Coronary artery disease itself can have many causes, but one key related process is atherosclerosis. This is when the body’s arteries narrow or harden due to the buildup of plaque, which contains cholesterol, fat, calcium and other materials. 

“Throughout our lives, this waxy substance can build up in the heart’s arteries,” Henry Ford cardiologist Deirdre Mattina, M.D, said. 

Atherosclerosis can also be associated with a number of related cardiovascular conditions throughout the body, including stroke, peripheral artery disease and chronic kidney disease. As you get older, your risk of developing atherosclerosis increases, especially for men over 45 and women over 55.

“Certain factors like age and family history cannot be changed,” Mattina said. “However, everyone can help reduce their risk for atherosclerosis, heart disease and related conditions by adopting a healthy, balanced lifestyle.” 

Major risk factors for heart disease you can control

One major risk factor is blood cholesterol levels. This includes high LDL (bad) and low HDL (good) cholesterol, and high triglycerides (fat produced from sugars and carbohydrates). For many years, dietary advice included limiting your cholesterol intake to help lower LDL cholesterol. However, the latest research suggests that it’s not this simple and that for most people, dietary cholesterol is not the main culprit for raising bad cholesterol in the blood. Instead, the focus is now on limiting saturated and trans fats, which increase LDL, and reducing simple carbohydrates that are dense in sugar and can increase your risk of diabetes. 

The American Heart Association recommends a heart-healthy diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes and non-tropical vegetable oils. Portion control is also key, as obesity is another major heart disease risk factor.

Beyond nutrition, there are other steps you can take to reduce your heart disease risk, including literally taking more steps. A sedentary lifestyle is another major risk factor for heart disease, so being more active can help to reduce your risk. However, if it’s been a while since you exercised, if you already have heart disease or if you have certain other conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure (two other major risk factors for heart disease), you should talk to your doctor before beginning any new exercise regimen.

For everyone, lowering your stress and quitting smoking if you’re a smoker can also help to reduce your heart disease risk.

Know your heart disease risk in 5 minutes 

Take our heart risk assessment today to learn exactly what areas of your heart health need attention. Henry Ford Health System also offers a Lifestyle Enhancement visit for women at risk of heart disease at the Women’s Heart Center, heart disease prevention programs and quit-tobacco programs.