Do you know the important risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and what you can do about them? While there are a few that you can’t do anything about like your age or gender, there are several factors that are modifiable by making healthy choices and managing health conditions. And don’t let the #1 killer in the United States affect you or your loved ones.
Concerned about your total cholesterol? Read on to discover the most numbers you need to know to determine your cardiac risk factor. Hint – Your total cholesterol and LDL are not it!
Risk Factors We’re Stuck With
There’s a saying,” You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” Just as you are “stuck” with your family, you are also essentially helpless when it comes to the genes you inherited and the date you were born. So you can easily see that family history, ethnicity and age are key risk factors of cardiovascular disease that are out of your control.
Since individuals can be predisposed to cardiovascular disease by their genes, it is important to share your family history with your healthcare practitioner. However, there are important things you can do to influence your cardiovascular health – so take control of those now and read on!
Modifiable Risk Factors
There are several risk factors for coronary heart disease that you can address. These include issues like tobacco exposure, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, physical inactivity, obesity, diabetes, unhealthy diets and harmful use of alcohol. Let’s take a closer look at a few of them.
Many people assume that lung cancer is the largest smoking-attributable cause of death in the United States, but cardiovascular disease actually claims more lives of smokers 35 years of age and older, according to the Surgeon General. In fact, “Smoking is the #1 cause of preventable death in the United States, causing over 393,000 deaths per year.” Exposure to secondhand smoke is a serious matter as well, causing close to 50,000 deaths each year, according to the American Lung Association. Looking at the big picture, premature cardiovascular and metabolic disease deaths caused by smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke from 1965-2014 totaled 7,787,000.
If you or someone you love needs to quit smoking, check out the American Lung Association’s Freedom From Smoking program. It teaches proven techniques that help smokers quit.
High Blood Pressure
Hypertension is another risk factor for heart disease. High blood pressure increases cardiovascular disease risk in those under 50. For those older, the systolic pressure is a more important predictor of heart disease. The increased pressure caused by hypertension can cause artery damage, which can result in blocked blood flow to the heart, chest pain, heart attack, thickening of the heart muscle and heart failure. It can also cause an aneurysm, which can form in the aorta, the body’s largest artery.
To reduce the risk of hypertension, get plenty of physical activity, maintain a healthy weight, maintain a proper pH balance, and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
It is likely your doctor has told you to reduce salt in your diet to reduce your blood pressure. The World Heart Federation agrees with your doctor as they say, “Dietary salt is a significant factor in raising blood pressure in people with hypertension and in some people with normal blood pressure. If you are already overweight, a high intake of salt increases your risk of cardiovascular disease.”
I am not necessarily disagreeing. However I would say that it should be clarified that the reason most (Americans in particular) people consume too much salt is from the huge amount of processed foods in our diet. Most packaged food is extremely high in sodium. Cut out the processed food, replace it with fruits and vegetables and guess what? Your sodium intake magically goes down.
The other key factor that your doctor may forget to mention, is that a reduction in sodium alone isn’t going to lower blood pressure. The alkalizing minerals (potassium, magnesium and calcium) play an important part in blood pressure regulation. Where do you get those? These minerals are mostly present in vegetables and fruits, and can be found in supplements of course.
The DASH Diet emphasizes getting the right nutrients (including calcium, magnesium and potassium) to help lower and control blood pressure.
Since your kidneys influence body fluids, your blood pressure is influenced by your kidneys. This one minute video gives a brief overview:
This article supports the fact that certain vegetables such as beets and celery, contain organic nitrates that can “increase vasodilation, decrease blood pressure and support cardio function.” There are also supplements that help to support health blood pressure levels, some that even contain celery!
Another major risk factor for cardiovascular disease is high cholesterol. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute says, “The higher your blood cholesterol level, the greater your risk for developing heart disease or having a heart attack.” As cholesterol increases in the blood, it starts to build up on the walls of the arteries, leading to slowed, or even blocked, blood flow to the heart. When blood and oxygen can’t reach the heart, chest pain or heart attack can result. An HDL level under 40 mg/dL is a major risk factor and increases the risk for developing heart disease.
Since there are no symptoms of high cholesterol, it is recommended that adults have their cholesterol measured at least every five years. The lipoprotein profile blood test is best for finding out cholesterol numbers. Desirable numbers for total cholesterol level fall under 200 mg/dL; for LDL level, below 100 mg/dL; and for HDL level, a bare minimum of 40 mg/dL and much higher is better. Managing cholesterol can be done by making therapeutic lifestyle changes, drug treatment and certain supplements may also support healthy cholesterol levels.
Lack of physical activity is a main risk factor for heart issues as well. The New York Department of Health estimates that approximately 35 percent of coronary heart disease mortality is due to lack of physical activity. Less active people are also at a 30-50 percent greater risk of having high blood pressure, an important risk factor for heart disease as well.
The World Heart Federation reports that a middle-aged woman who does less than one hour of exercise a week doubles her risk of dying from a cardiovascular event compared to a physically active woman of the same age.
Being physically active helps you live longer, and protects against many forms of cardiovascular disease. If you lead a sedentary life, “Even small increases in physical fitness are associated with a significant reduction in cardiovascular risk, even if you have existing disease,” reports the World Heart Federation. Be sure to speak with your doctor before starting an exercise regimen.
Risk Score Calculators
If you’d like to delve a bit deeper into your risk for cardiovascular disease, try the interactive risk score calculators on the Framingham Heart Study website. This study, a joint project of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and Boston University, was embarked upon back in 1948 when little was known about the general causes of heart disease and is still ongoing. Read more here.
In my mind the most important numbers to determine heart health are not your total cholesterol or your LDL (bad cholesterol). The calculators I suggest are found in this article from the Functional Medicine University:
The published evidence is quite clear in documenting that the actual total cholesterol level itself is not the most important risk factor of cardiovascular disease. It is the ratio between the level of HDL-“good” cholesterol and total cholesterol that we need to be concerned about.
Therefore, in adults, the HDL-“good” cholesterol/total cholesterol ratio should be higher than 0.24 (just divide your HDL level by your cholesterol). Or more precisely, the HDL/total cholesterol ratio:
0.24 or higher is considered ideal
under 0.24 – low
less than 0.10 – very dangerous.
Generally speaking, the higher the ratio, the better (the lower your risk of a heart attack).
However, HDL is closely related to triglycerides.
It appears common for people with high triglycerides to have low HDL’s, and these same people also tend to have high levels of clotting factors in their blood stream, which is unhealthy in protecting against heart disease.
Therefore, in adults, the triglyceride/HDL-“good” cholesterol ratio should be below 2 (just divide your triglycerides level by your HDL). Or more precisely, the triglyceride/HDL ratio:
2 or less is considered ideal
4 – high
6 – much too high
The lower your triglycerides, and since HDL (high density lipoprotein) is protective against heart disease, the higher your HDL, the lower the ratio, the better.
It is now believed that the triglycerides/HDL ratio is one of the most potent predictors of heart disease.
A Harvard-lead study author reported:
“High triglycerides alone increased the risk of heart attack nearly three-fold. And people with the highest ratio of triglycerides to HDL — the “good” cholesterol — had 16 times the risk of heart attack as those with the lowest ratio of triglycerides to HDL in the study of 340 heart attack patients and 340 of their healthy, same age counterparts.
The ratio of triglycerides to HDL was the strongest predictor of a heart attack, even more accurate than the LDL/HDL ratio (Circulation 1997;96:2520-2525).”
If you’ve had recent blood tests and know your results, calculate your ratio of triglycerides to HDL to determine your true cardiac risk factor!
If you’ve found your triglycerides are too high, check out this article on the 5 Amazing Health Benefits of Berberine for a natural option to help with lowering triglycerides, as well as potential weight loss benefits.
If you need to make lifestyle changes to lower your risk of a cardiovascular issue, consider a fish oil supplement to support your healthy heart too!
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I wish you well in your efforts to reduce your risk factors for heart disease … they just may save your life.