Health & Wellness Articles

What Causes Heart Disease?

Are You At Risk for Heart Disease?

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Controllable Risk Factors
Factors that you can control are related to your lifestyle—the choices you make each day about what to eat and whether or not to exercise. These are areas of your life where you can take control to reduce your risk of heart disease and enhance your overall health.
  • Smoking. Most people think of lung cancer when they think of smoking, but did you know that smoking is the leading preventable cause of heart disease and heart attack? People who smoke are 2-4 times more likely to develop heart disease than non-smokers, according to the AHA. Smoking damages the walls of your arteries, constricts blood vessels, and lowers your HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Quitting smoking can stop (and potentially reverse) a lot of the existing damage to your body. The American Lung Association says that after one year of quitting, an ex-smoker's heart disease risk is half that of a smoker's, and after 15 years without lighting up, it's as low as a nonsmoker's. Don't smoke? Good! But stay away from tobacco smoke anyway. Exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk of heart disease even for nonsmokers.
     
  • Your diet. A diet that's high in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, added sugars, cholesterol can raise your cholesterol and blood pressure levels and increase your risk of heart disease. Some research shows that diets too high in animal-based foods (meat and high-fat dairy products) and too low in plant-based foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts can lead to heart disease, too. Learn more about the foods that help fight heart disease.
     
  • Your activity level. If you're inactive, you're almost twice as likely to develop heart disease as people who get moving on a regular basis, reports the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Regular exercise naturally decreases the LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in your blood while increasing your HDL (good) cholesterol levels. It also lowers blood pressure and helps with blood sugar control, not to mention that exercise strengthens the heart and cardiovascular system so that it is more efficient. Exercise does not have to be strenuous to offer benefits. Get a heart-smart workout plan here.
     
  • Your weight. The more excess body fat you have, the greater your risk of heart disease and heart attack—even if you have no other risk factors. Being overweight increases your blood LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels, lowers HDL (good) cholesterol, and exacerbates other heart disease risks like diabetes and high blood pressure. Plus, carrying excess weight simply puts additional strain on the heart, forcing it to work harder. Calculating your body mass index (BMI) is one way to determine if you are overweight; losing just 10% of your body weight (if you are overweight) can improve your heart health.
     
  • Stress. Experts aren't sure why people with chronic stress have higher rates of heart disease, but they believe that stress (and the hormones it releases) may damage the arteries over time and make blood clots more likely to form. Just one stressful episode can elevate the heart rate and blood pressure for a short period, and even lead to a heart attack. Some people find unhealthy ways to deal with stress, such as overeating, smoking, or drinking (all risk factors in their own right). Identifying your stressors and dealing with them in a healthy way can help protect your heart.
     
  • Your drinking habits. Drinking too much—and possibly too little—seems to increase one's risk of heart disease. People who drink moderately (defined as an average of one drink day for women and two drinks daily for men) have a lower risk of heart disease than nondrinkers. However, the AHA does not recommend that teetotalers start drinking (or that drinkers increase the amount they drink) in order to achieve these purported benefits. Drinking too much has far more risks than not drinking. Too much alcohol can raise blood pressure and triglycerides, as well as contribute to obesity, irregular heartbeat, cardiomyopathy, alcoholism, heart failure, cancer, stroke and other diseases. To protect your heart, cut back on drinking; if you don't drink often—or at all—don't start. Continued ›
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About The Author

Nicole Nichols Nicole Nichols
A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, Nicole loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Nicole was formerly SparkPeople's fitness expert and editor-in-chief, known on the site as "Coach Nicole." Make sure to explore more of her articles and blog posts.

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