Some conditions, as well as some lifestyle factors, can put people at a higher risk for developing heart disease. Everyone can take steps to lower their risk of heart disease and heart attack by addressing these risk factors. Control of risk factors is especially needed by people who already have heart disease.
Heart Disease Conditions
High blood cholesterol is a condition in which your blood has too much cholesterol – a waxy, fat-like substance. It is produced by the liver or consumed in certain foods. It is needed by the body, and the liver makes enough for the body’s needs.
When there is too much cholesterol in the body – because of diet and the rate at which cholesterol is processed – it is deposited in arteries (including those of the heart). This can lead to narrowing of the arteries, heart disease and other complications. The higher your blood cholesterol level, the greater your risk of heart disease and heart attack. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 50 percent of all heart attacks can be linked to high cholesterol.
Cholesterol travels through the bloodstream in small packages called lipoproteins. Two major kinds of lipoproteins carry cholesterol throughout the body:
- High-density lipoproteins (HDL). HDL cholesterol sometimes is called ‘good’ cholesterol. This is because it helps remove cholesterol from the arteries. A low HDL cholesterol level raises your risk of heart disease.
- Low-density lipoproteins (LDL). LDL cholesterol sometimes is called ‘bad’ cholesterol. This is because it carries cholesterol to tissues, including your heart arteries. A high LDL cholesterol level raises your risk of heart disease.
Many factors affect your cholesterol levels. For example, after menopause women’s LDL cholesterol levels tend to rise and their HDL cholesterol levels tend to fall. Other factors such as age, gender, diet and physical activity also affect your cholesterol levels.
Healthy levels of both LDL and HDL cholesterol will prevent plaque from building up in your arteries. Routine blood tests can show whether your blood cholesterol levels are healthy. Talk with your doctor about having your cholesterol tested and what the results mean.
High blood pressure (hypertension) is another major risk factor for heart disease. It is a condition where the pressure of the blood in the arteries is too high. There are often no symptoms to signal high blood pressure so many people are unaware that they have it. The only way to detect high blood pressure is to have it checked regularly. Lowering blood pressure by changes in lifestyle or by medication can lower the risk of heart disease and heart attack.
Diabetes also increases a person’s risk for heart disease. With diabetes, the body either doesn’t make enough insulin, can’t use its own insulin as well as it should or both. This causes sugars to build up in the blood.
- High blood pressure, also called hypertension, can greatly increase a person’s risk of stroke. Behaviors such as smoking, diets high in salt, and excessive alcohol consumption may raise blood pressure.
- Atrial fibrillation, a condition causing irregular and often rapid heart rate, may allow clots to form and travel to the brain, causing a stroke.
- High cholesterol, a condition which may cause fatty deposits to build up in blood vessel walls. This eventually can reduce blood flow to the brain, resulting in a stroke.
- Diabetes increases the risk of having a stroke and can make the outcome of stroke worse.
- Heart disease and heart disorders can increase the risk for stroke. Coronary artery disease causes plaque, a fatty substance, to build up and cause blockage in the arteries that bring blood to the heart. Other heart disorders such as valve defects and irregular heartbeats can cause blood clots that can break loose and cause a stroke.
- Smoking contributes to stroke risk in multiple ways. Smoking can damage blood vessels, accelerate hardening of the arteries, increase risk of blood clots, raise blood pressure, and reduce the ability for blood to carry oxygen.
- Excessive alcohol intake raises blood pressure and can contribute to hardening of the arteries, which are both risk factors for stroke.
- Lack of physical activity can lead to weight gain which can lead to high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. These conditions can increase the risk for stroke. Lack of exercise also increases risk for diabetes, which further adds to stroke risk.
- Family history is a major indicator: genetic factors likely contribute to high blood pressure and heart disease, so a family history of stroke increases your risk. Also, the shared environments and behaviors in some families may contribute to stroke risk.
- Age and gender also play a role in risk for stroke. Stroke risk increases with age and men are at greater risk than women.
- Race and ethnicity are indicators of stroke risk. Hispanics, African Americans, and American Indians have a greater risk of stroke than Caucasian or Asian people.