Assessing Your Risk of Heart Disease
Sandeep Gupta, MD, is the Medical Director of Cardiology at Atrium Medical Center in Middletown.
Q. If your father or mother had a heart attack in their 30s, will you have one, too? How can you protect yourself?
A: February is American Heart Month, a good time to assess your risk of heart disease and how you can take steps to improve your heart health. Still the number one killer of men and women in the United States, heart disease often can be prevented or treated with healthy lifestyle choices, diet and exercise.
Family history is a strong predictor of heart disease. According to new statistics from the American Heart Association, if a parent had a heart attack before age 60, a man’s risk of heart attack doubles and a woman’s risk increases 70 percent. If a brother or sister has heart disease, your odds double, whether you’re a man or a woman.
And the more people who have heart disease in your family, the greater your chances are for experiencing it yourself. Additional new research shows that if your parent, brother or sister suffered from heart disease before age 60, and your aunt, uncle or grandparent also did, you are nearly 10 times more likely to have heart disease early in life than someone with no family history.
If your relatives have heart disease, what should you do?
By knowing your family history, you can become more aware of how to prevent or minimize heart problems for yourself. While you cannot change your family history, you should see your doctor for a thorough examination that will check for the other risk factors that contribute to heart disease: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and being overweight.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in all the body’s cells. If your cholesterol level is high, it can build up on the walls of the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that carry blood to the heart. This buildup is called plaque. It narrows the arteries and eventually restricts the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart. A heart attack occurs when plaque ruptures, causing a blood clot that blocks blood flow.
Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of your blood vessels. When blood pressure is too high and remains that way, arterial walls become weakened and more prone to plaque buildup. Blood pressure tends to rise with age, unless you take steps to prevent or control it.
If you have diabetes, you are at risk for having a heart attack or stroke. Both strike people with diabetes more than twice as often as people who don’t have diabetes.
Because neither high cholesterol nor high blood pressure causes any noticeable symptoms, you could have both and not know it. Diabetes in its early stages is also often without symptoms. A simple blood test can measure your cholesterol levels and blood sugar levels. The ABCs are an easy way to remember issues related to risk of heart disease. A is for the diabetes test A1C, which reflects your average blood glucose level for the two to three month period before the test. B is blood pressure and C is cholesterol.
If you have a family history of heart disease, you may receive more intensive monitoring and treatment of cholesterol levels, blood pressure, diabetes, weight and other risk factors than someone with no family history who otherwise has the same risk profile.
Whether or not heart disease runs in your family, one of the most important things you can do to prevent a heart attack is to stop smoking cigarettes. Cigarette smoking is the most important preventable cause of premature death in the United States. Cigarette smokers have a higher risk of developing plaque in the arteries that leads to heart attack. Of course, smoking also causes several types of cancer and lung disease.
During American Heart Month, make time for your heart. Learn more about your risk for heart attack by using an online calculator or visit us online. Talk with your doctor about what you can do to encourage a healthy heart for years to come.
This information is for educational purposes only. Please talk to your physician for advice in all matters related to your health.
Content Updated: December 3, 2014
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