Some risk factors cannot be changed
You can't control some risk factors. But knowing what they are can help you understand your overall risk for heart disease.
- Age: Women usually develop heart disease about 10 to 15 years later than men. This is because until menopause, the ovaries produce estrogen. Estrogen protects women against plaque buildup. But at menopause the ovaries stop making estrogen, and your risk goes up. By age 70, women have about the same risk for heart disease as same-aged men. Menopause isn't the only reason getting older is a risk factor. As people age, arteries get stiffer and thicker. Also, systolic blood pressure (the top number) often goes up.
- Gender: It is a fact that men have a greater risk of heart attack than women, and they have attacks earlier in life.
- Family History: Women with a father or brother who developed heart disease before age 55 are at higher risk. Women with a mother or sister who developed heart disease before age 65 are also at higher risk. However, young women with a family history may not be aware of this risk. So, they may be less careful about living a heart-healthy lifestyle than men with a family history.
- Race and Ethnicity: As a group, African Americans are more likely to develop high blood pressure. Research also suggests that racial and ethnic minorities are generally more likely to develop heart disease. The reasons for this greater risk are unclear.
Previous heart attack, stroke or transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) are significant risk factors. A TIA, also called a mini-stroke is caused by temporary disturbance of blood supply to an area of the brain, resulting in a sudden brief decrease in brain function. A TIA is also is a risk factor and predictor of a major stroke.
New research finds that women who have had pre-eclampsia (previously called toxemia) during pregnancy have more than twice the risk of heart disease in later life.
There are risk factors you can control
Many risk factors can be modified, treated or controlled by focusing on lifestyle habits and taking medicine, if prescribed by a health care provider:
- Unhealthy cholesterol levels: Cholesterol is a type of fat found in your blood and other parts of your body. The body needs small amounts, but too much can cause a problem. The extra amounts can cling to, and clog, your arteries, making it harder for your heart to circulate blood. A blood test can measure your levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglycerides.
- High blood pressure: Blood pressure is the force your blood makes against your artery walls. If this pressure is too high, over time it can damage your artery walls. There are two kinds of pressure. Systolic is the pressure as your heart pumps blood into your arteries. Diastolic is the pressure between beats, when your heart relaxes. To lower your risk of heart disease, your blood pressure should be less than 120 systolic/80 diastolic. If your blood pressure is 140 systolic/90 diastolic or greater, you should seek medical attention.
- Cigarette smoking: Smoking hurts your heart. The more you smoke, the higher your risk. About half of all heart attacks in women are due to smoking! A woman who smaokes and also takes birth control pills is at even higher risk.
- Diabetes: Diabetes is a disease in which blood glucose (sugar) levels are higher than normal. Type 2 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes. It occurs often in people who are overweight or obese. Uncontrolled diabetes can damage artery walls. The disease is more common in African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders.
- Being overweight or obese: The more overweight you are, the higher your risk of heart disease. This is true even if you have no other risk factors. Being overweight also raises your chances of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. To lower your risk, your body mass index (BMI) should be between 18.5 and 24.9. A BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese.Use this calculator to find your BMI.
- Lack of physical activity: Like being overweight, lack of physical activity raises your heart disease risk even if you have no other risk factors. Being inactive also increases your chances of developing high blood pressure and diabetes. It also raises your risk of being overweight or obese.
- Sleep apnea: Has anyone ever told you that you snore? Loud snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that can raise your chances of having a heart attack. With obstructive sleep apnea — the most common type — the tissue in the back of the throat relaxes. This blocks airflow to your lungs. This lowers the oxygen level in your blood, which makes your heart work harder. Sleep apnea often leads to high blood pressure.
If you think you might have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor or health care provider.