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Article: 3 Risk Factors for Heart Disease You Can’t Control—and 5 You Can

Article: 3 Risk Factors for Heart Disease You Can’t Control—and 5 You Can

Dr. Mark MatthewsYou have the power to improve your heart health.

Like many things in life, whether we get heart disease is somewhat under our control and somewhat not. Certain factors that put people at higher risk of having a heart attack, heart failure or other conditions can be changed, and others simply can’t.

But we have more power to prevent heart disease than we think, says Northside Hospital Cardiovascular Institute’s Mark Matthews, MD. The key is to make those changes in a gradual, intentional way so that they stick.

“You’re human; you can’t suddenly change everything,” Dr. Matthews says. “But you can make changes you can live with to continue to reduce your risk.”

It’s also important to know which factors can’t be modified so that you can understand your risk clearly, which will help you and your doctor act early to prevent and treat disease.

Here’s what you need to know, plus action items you can take starting today.

3 Uncontrollable Risk Factors for Heart Disease

1. Genetics

Yes, heart disease can be hereditary, but it’s not as hereditary as people think, Dr. Matthews says: If you have relatives with heart problems in their 60s, 70s and 80s, their heart disease was probably acquired over time rather than running in the family. But if you have close relatives (parents, grandparents or siblings) who have had heart disease before age 50, then you may have a genetic predisposition, and it’s worth talking to your doctor about your risk.

2. Age

Put simply, older people have a higher risk of heart disease, so the older you get, the higher your risk, Dr. Matthews says.

3. Gender

Men have a higher risk of heart disease than women do, but as women go through menopause, they start to close the gap, Dr. Matthews says. This is thought to be because estrogen helps to keep blood vessels flexible, and when it is no longer produced, heart risks increase. Heart disease is the most common cause of death for both men and women.

5 Controllable Risk Factors for Heart Disease

1. Smoking

If you smoke, quitting is the best thing you can do for your heart, Dr. Matthews says. After a person stops smoking, his or her risk of a heart attack drops precipitously within the first year, he adds. That’s because smoking not only harms the lungs but also damages blood vessels, raises blood pressure and heart rate, and reduces blood flow from the heart.

Take action: If you smoke, talk to your doctor about a quit method and set a start date. Remember that some people try to quit seven to 10 times before they are successful, Dr. Matthews says, so don’t give up on yourself. “Yes, it’s hard, but lots and lots of people have done it and continue to do it,” he says.

2. Diet

For people who don’t smoke, diet is the most important modifiable risk factor, Dr. Matthews says, and “pretty much everybody can do better when it comes to what they eat.”

Take action: Aim for a well-balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and skinless poultry and fish. Limit foods high in sodium, saturated fats and trans fats. Dr. Matthews is a fan of the Mediterranean diet, which includes olive oil as a healthy fat source and lots of fruits and vegetables.

3. Exercise

Exercise has many benefits for the heart, Dr. Matthews says. It strengthens your heart muscle and helps it pump more efficiently, it helps you maintain a healthy weight, and it can help regulate blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. “There’s no age when you should stop exercising. It’s always important, and you can always lower your risk,” he says.

Take action: Work your way toward 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise. Dr. Matthews is a big proponent of walking: “It’s low-risk for injury, it’s readily available and you don’t need any special equipment but walking shoes,” he says. Start with 10 or 15 minutes a day and build up slowly, he says. He also recommends resistance training, such as pushups or using light weights or bands to strengthen the muscles.

4. Cholesterol

Cholesterol is the waxy substance that can build up on the walls of the arteries, narrowing them and increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. Making healthy changes to your diet and starting an exercise program can lower your LDL, the “bad” cholesterol that builds up in the arteries.

Take action: Get a baseline measure of your cholesterol levels well before you reach middle age; Dr. Matthews suggests a first check at age 25, then regular checks as recommended by your doctor. “Get it checked earlier rather than later. And work with your doctor to optimize your cholesterol levels,” he says.

5. Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a major risk factor for heart disease. “If your blood pressure is not adequately controlled, your risk of heart attack and stroke goes up a lot long-term,” Dr. Matthews says. Nearly half of Americans have hypertension.

Take action: To lower your blood pressure, focus on the topics we’ve already covered: Diet, exercise and weight loss all have positive effects on blood pressure, Dr. Matthews says. Eating a low-sodium diet is especially important, so limit or avoid cold cuts and cured meats, bread, pizza, soup and cheese. It’s also smart to reduce your alcohol intake, Dr. Matthews says.