Heart Disease 101

Thinking about your risk of heart disease can be frightening, but watching out for your health now can pay off in a big way. Making simple changes – like what you eat and how active you are – can lower your heart disease risk by as much as 82 percent!

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is most commonly caused by narrowing or blockage of the coronary arteries – the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart itself. This is called coronary heart (or artery) disease, and it’s the main cause of heart attacks in men and women.

Fat, cholesterol, and other substances collect in the walls of your coronary arteries, leading to a buildup of plaque and a condition called atherosclerosis. As the coronary artery narrows, blood flow slows or stops, which causes angina (severe chest pain), shortness of breath, or a heart attack.

Who gets heart disease?

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for all men and women. Men and women of all ages should be concerned about heart disease. The more you understand how your choices impact your risk, the more you’ll be able to reduce your risk of heart disease now and throughout your life.

What factors affect your risk of heart disease?

There are several risk factors for heart disease – and you can control most of them!

Factors you can control: 

  • Cholesterol
  • Blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Stress

Factors you cannot control:

  • Family history
  • Age

If you have high numbers for three or more of the risk factors you can control – cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, obesity (particularly your waist circumference) – you may have metabolic syndrome. A person with metabolic syndrome is twice as likely to develop heart disease as someone without metabolic syndrome. Be sure to talk with your doctor or health care provider to learn more.

How can you reduce your risk?

  • Get screened. The first step on your journey to heart health is to find out what risk factors you have. Getting screened is the first step to managing your personal heart health.
  • Build your support system. It’s easier to make healthy changes when you can count on the support of the people in your life. Ask your friends and family for help as you work toward the goal of heart health.
  • Choose heart healthy foods. Eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, with whole grains and high fiber foods, fish, and low-fat meat and dairy products, is a step in the right direction.
  • Lighten up. Losing even a little weight can make a big difference to your heart.
  • Get moving. Engaging in some type of physical activity on most days lowers your risk for heart disease.
  • Relax. Stress in life becomes stress in your body. Reducing your stress helps keep your heart healthy.
  • Manage your medications. If you take medications, including over-the-counter drugs, be sure to take them as directed.

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