There are many heart attack risk factors. Some are within our control–lifestyle choices you can make to lower your risk. Others are not within our control, but it is important to be aware of them. To fully understand these heart attack risk factors, we first need to understand a heart attack’s immediate causes.
Heart Attack Causes
It all begins with the buildup of fats and other substances in your artery walls. As these substances – together known as plaque – build up in your arteries, and as you age, your arteries become hard and narrow.
One day, the plaque might break away from the artery wall and entirely block blood flow. This is known as a blood clot, and this is what causes heart attacks. When one or more of the coronary arteries becomes blocked, the heart cannot get the blood and oxygen it needs.
That is the immediate cause of a heart attack, but let’s go back even farther than that. What causes the buildup of fats and other substances in your blood in the first place? Why do the arteries harden? And what other factors put you at risk for a heart attack?
Inherited or Physical Factors
The first thing to remember is that there are some factors that are not within your control. These are inherited or happen naturally. But being aware of them will help you be more prepared.
- Family history. If a parent or close relative has had a heart attack, you are at a greater risk of experiencing one, too.
- As we age, our risk for heart attack increases. Men over 45 and women over 55 are more likely to have a heart attack than younger men and women.
- Men tend to have more heart attacks than women until women go through menopause.
- Some auto-immune conditions
- History of preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy)
- Diabetes—high blood sugar levels can damage blood vessel walls over time
If you have any of these conditions, work with your doctor to reduce your risk of heart attack.
High blood pressure
Blood pressure is measured as the force of blood pressing against your blood vessel walls. High blood pressure can damage artery walls over time. It can be dangerous because high blood pressure has almost no outward symptoms.
What you can do: First, get your blood pressure checked regularly. Or learn how to monitor it yourself at home. Then, set a goal of obtaining normal blood pressure (which is below 120/80). Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Heartbeet Complete can help expand your blood vessels by introducing nitric oxide into your blood. You will also want to cut back on salt and get regular physical activity.
Smoking or Tobacco Use
Smoking can do a lot of damage to your health. You probably know how it can affect your lungs; you may not be aware of how it can hurt your heart. Smoking cigarettes can cause plaque to build up in your arteries. When these break away, they can form a blood clot that prevents oxygen from getting to your heart or brain. Smoking also raises blood pressure.
What you can do: Do not begin smoking if you do not smoke. If you do smoke, quit. This may take time and support from those around you. Start here for help to quit smoking.
Excessive alcohol intake can raise your blood pressure, increase your risk of diabetes, and increase your weight. These are all factors that increase your risk of a heart attack.
What you can do: Drink alcohol in moderation. This usually means no more than one glass a day for women and no more than two for men. Red wine is recognized as a healthier choice because of an antioxidant it contains called resveratrol. These may protect your heart and brain.
Being Overweight or Obese
Being overweight or obese often indicates other health concerns, such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, or eating unhealthily. Extra weight can also raise your blood pressure. These factors increase your risk of heart attack.
What you can do: Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and healthy fats. Limit your portion sizes and stay physically active.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is found in your cell membranes. Your body needs cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and other substances that help you digest food. But high cholesterol contributes to buildup in the blood vessels and arteries. These can eventually turn into clots.
Your body creates the cholesterol it needs, but it is also found in food. There are different types, and some are better than others. Low density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol is also called “bad” cholesterol. This causes plaque buildup. High density lipoprotein or HDL cholesterol is called “good” cholesterol. It takes excess cholesterol back to your liver to be removed from your body.
What you can do: Avoid foods with bad fats. These can include saturated fats and trans fats, which are found in some meats, dairy products, baked goods, deep-fried foods and processed foods. Quit smoking. Smoking raises LDL cholesterol and lowers HDL cholesterol in women. Include HDL cholesterol foods in your diet, including fatty fish, vegetable oils, nuts, legumes, and seeds.
High Triglyceride Levels
Triglycerides are fats found in your blood. They are basically calories that weren’t used right away and were stored as fat. Your body needs them to a degree, but like cholesterol triglycerides can contribute to plaque buildup in your blood vessels and arteries.
What you can do: You can lower triglyceride levels by maintaining a healthy weight, decreasing sugar and carbohydrate intake, eating dietary fiber and exercising. Omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish oil, have also been known to lower triglyceride levels. Including omega-3s in your diet can keep triglyceride levels down.
Lack of Physical Activity
Keeping active has many benefits. People who exercise and do enjoyable physical activities are happier and healthier. Physical exercise can also help you keep your blood pressure at a normal level because exercise releases nitric oxide in your blood, expanding your blood vessels and helping blood flow.
On the other hand, lack of physical activity can increase your risk of heart attack. It raises your blood pressure and can lead to other conditions such as diabetes, chronic stress, obesity, and metabolic syndrome.
What you can do: Set a goal and make a plan to incorporate 30 minutes of physical activity every day. Don’t think this all has to be at the gym: make sure to include activities you really enjoy doing. If your work requires extended sit-down time, make sure to include walks in your daily routine.
Constant stress can increase your blood pressure. As we’ve already pointed out, high blood pressure can damage blood vessel walls. Unmanaged stress can also lead to other unhealthy behaviors, such as poor diet or lack of physical activity.
What you can do: So many aspects of our lives are interconnected. Eating healthy and getting enjoyable physical exercise will also help you manage stress. So can getting enough sleep and doing relaxing activities such as meditation, yoga, and other recreational activities. Simplify your life and be sure to include activities that help you relax.
The Bottom Line
There are some risk factors outside our control, but there is also lot you can do to reduce your risk of a heart attack. It mainly comes down to eating right, staying active, managing your blood pressure, and being mindful of the conditions that put you at risk. Follow the “What you can do” guidelines and talk with your doctor to lower your risk.