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What Causes Heart Disease?

Are You At Risk for Heart Disease?

-- By Nicole Nichols, Health Educator
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Many people understand that there is a connection between poor diet, lack of exercise and the development of heart disease. But your risk of developing cardiovascular disease is the result of a combination of many risk factors. There are two main categories of risks that contribute to heart disease—those that you can't change (uncontrollable risks), and those that you can (controllable risks).

Uncontrollable Risk Factors
These variables are out of your control. Although you can't do anything to change them, it's important to know whether you fall into any of these higher-risk categories. How many of these risk factors do you exhibit?
  • Your age. Men over 45 and women over 55 are more likely to develop heart disease than their younger counterparts. The American Heart Association (AHA) states that more than 83 percent of people who die of coronary heart disease are 65 or older. Why? Plaque begins to slowly deposit in the arteries starting in childhood, so simply getting older increases your risk of developing heart disease and having a heart attack. The older you get, the more likely you are to have damaged arteries and/or a weakened heart muscle. Most people have plaque buildup in the arteries by the time they reach their 70s, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, but only about one-quarter of these people will exhibit signs or symptoms of cardiovascular disease.
     
  • Your sex. Overall, more men have heart attacks than women do, and they experience them earlier in life, too. While a woman's risk of dying from heart disease increases after menopause, it's still lower than a man's.
     
  • Your family history. If people in your family have heart disease—especially close or immediate relatives, your risk of developing it increases. If a parent or sibling developed heart disease at an early age (before age 55 for men, or before age 65 for women), your risk is even higher. Developing heart disease isn't necessarily in your DNA, however. Lifestyle habits (diet, exercise, smoking, drinking, etc.) tend to be passed down from generation to generation, which means that some portion of this risk is controllable.
     
  • Your race. Somewhat related to family history, your race can also predetermine part of your risk of heart disease. African Americans, American Indians, Mexican Americans, and native Hawaiians are more likely to have heart disease than Caucasians, but this is partly due to other risk factors that these populations tend to experience, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
     
  • Your body type. Whether or not you become overweight or obese is mostly within your control, but you cannot control your weight distribution, which refers to where your body stores fat. For years, experts warned that people who tend to carry excess weight in their belly area (known as "apple" shapes) are at a greater risk of several health problems, including heart disease, while "pear" shaped bodies that store more fat in the lower body don't have the same risk. However, one 2010 study published in The Lancet dispelled that idea, saying that being overweight (regardless of where your body stores the fat) is a heart disease risk factor. Your genetics determine your body type; if you are apple-shaped now, you will always be apple-shaped, even if you lose weight. Still, maintaining a healthy body weight—which would decrease your waist circumference—is a controllable risk factor (more on that below) that can reduce your heart disease risk. Continued ›
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About The Author

Nicole Nichols Nicole Nichols
Nicole was named "America's Top Personal Trainer to Watch" in 2011. A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, she loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Her DVDs "Total Body Sculpting" and "28 Day Boot Camp" (a best seller) are available online and in stores nationwide. Read Nicole's full bio and blog posts.

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Member Comments

  • I find my own course of life issues to be related in the area of "Level and degree to which each body responds to different food types". As a young person I had very little sensitvity to food and I also was very very active. I stressed alot of my body processes as I have aged and this plus increased sensitivty to food and less and less effectivness of my own "engine" makes my approach to food and activity much different NOW. I am an old car that needs more care and attention to be performing at any level. Bottom line everything is relative and age plus wear and tear make the management of risks different. I like the suggestions but I temper my approach to my current ability to manage my numbers. - 3/13/2014 2:18:17 PM
  • ANGIE7773
    Exercise daily .... I walked 4500 steps 5 days a week I didn't loose much weight... but my body shape changed. And best of all my BP dropped to 120/70 which has been maintained thru to this year - 2/1/2014 1:37:21 AM
  • KWHILES
    My two cents worth!? These are the general, widely accepted risk factors and lifestyle chioces that are linked to heart disease and heart attack. There are always exceptions and "atypical" bodies when it comes to any physical problem! As a result, we need to do our best to pay attetnion to our bodies and be very persistent when dealing with the medical profession, as well as paying attetnion to our tendancies to ignore symptoms or put off seeking answers. I am 49 with personal and family HISTORY of high blood pressure, high cholestrol, and early onset heart disease. I first noticed personal SYMPTOMS (angina during exercise) in my early 40's which was swept under the rug by an ignorant cardiologist who gave me a stress test and pronounced me to be "fine" . In the past nine months I've had to push to get the correct testing and finally had an angiogram two weeks ago resulting in angioplasty and stent placement for an 80% blockage on a major artery in my heart. Having a diagnosis of Coraonary Heart Disease is not ideal for me but actually having a diagnosis and a REAL cardiologist after 7 years is a relief! I wish I'd been more persistant sooner!! - 3/14/2013 11:15:53 AM
  • P1NKR05E5
    Read Dr. William Davis's book "Wheat Belly"!!!! It changed my life. I'm sad that my dear husband has been misled by articles like this. He has had a heart attack in the past and now stents just recently. Obviously, he and the rest of America who follow the AHA recommendations are still getting sick. Maybe, something needs to change!! I follow a grain-free, sugar free diet, high fat diet and I feel great. My cholesterol and trig values are low and my HDL is sky high. Why are these so called heart health specialists misleading us???? - 1/31/2013 1:46:57 PM
  • VINSAKE
    All I want to say is I am glad there are others who dont agree with the information in this article. I have watched Fat Head, which is a great documentary. I highly recommend it to others who want to know more about why this information is incorrect. I am on a high fat, low carb diet, exercise 6 days per week and my health has improved dramatically. I have blood tests to support my claims, plus thousands of others who have achieved the same results. You'll find there are a lot of scientific studies to back this up if you look into it & not just one. - 9/17/2012 3:01:09 AM
  • BETINGO
    I am normal weight, exercise regularly, have low BP, great cholesterol numbers, eat a healthy and balanced diet, no family history of heart disease, and have an hourglass rather than an apple shape. At age 59 I had a heart attack! A tiny piece of plaque broke away from a blood vessel in my heart and caused a blockage. My cardiologist said I had better odds of being the single winner of the $135 million lottery that weekend than of having that heart attack! My GP was stunned. Luckily, I recognized the symptoms--differe
    nt in women than men, so educate yourselves ladies--called 911 immediately, and was in the OR having two stents put in within 90 minutes of the onset. Completely recovered now with no damage, though I struggled with depression and anxiety for about 9 months afterwards. Looking back, the only risk factor that my cardiologist and GP could come up with was stress from a combination of factors in my life. I have since added yoga and Tai Chi Chih to my exercise routine. I'm sure that the reason I regained my health so quickly is that I took care of myself to begin with and knew the symptoms of a heart attack in women. Next time I defy any odds I hope I end up with the $135 mil! - 3/25/2012 8:38:48 PM
  • MARTY32M
    As a heart patient, and editor of a monthly newsletter for an organization of heart patients, I believe this is a good unbiased overview of current knowledge of the risk factors for coronary heart disease (the most prevalent kind of heart disease).

    It isn't perfect. I like the comment by JENG829 about the uncertain role of saturated fat. But while I congratulate CHRIS3847 on the health of his long lived grandfather, a study with one subject proves nothing. I had low risk and a double bypass at 65. We know some statistical risk factors, but not clear and definite causes.

    My main complaint is not with the article itself but with its headlines. The title on the web page is "What Causes Heart Disease?" but the article lists risk factors, not causes. An email today linked to it with the heading "Calculate your heart attack risk" but while the article lists risk factors you can't calculate anything from it. But as a list of risk factors, I like it. - 3/15/2012 10:14:43 AM
  • Such interesting comments this article elicited!!! - 11/8/2011 8:48:59 PM
  • Recent analysis of studies has shown that saturated fat is not clearly linked to heart disease, so I wish these types of articles would be updated with that information.

    The only studies I've seen that showed red meat to be correlated with disease combine red meats & processed meats, which are two very different things. Processed meats often contain fillers & preservatives which are known carcinogens. Red meat is just, well, meat. Natural. If there are updated studies, I'd like to see those referenced instead ofthe same old substandard studies.

    This frustrates me because we have been told these "guidelines" for years, and many people I have known followed the guidelines, getting sicker and fatter in the process. There has to be something other than this "one size fits all" low-fat high-starch approach. - 8/9/2011 5:28:53 PM
  • Here we go again a vegan is going to tell us all how to live - well you know what my Grandpa ate RED MEAT his ENTIRE live and lived to be 98 and NEVER had heart disease!!! If I were you I wouldn't be quoting from the huffington post what a bunch of BS that thing spouts. - 7/28/2011 8:56:13 PM
  • Cardiologist Dr. Davis of the old heartscanblog.blo
    gspot.com now trackyourplaque believes wheat/gluten to be a culprit, too. He doesn't believe in whole grains ... can't help but appreciate his message knowing what I know, so I share with you to make your own decision: http://bit.ly/oaK
    ZJ2 . - 7/28/2011 11:35:55 AM