Get answers to your heart disease prevention questions.
Acute coronary syndrome; Myocardial infarction
The risk factors for heart attack are the same as those for coronary artery disease (heart disease). They include:
The risks for coronary artery disease increase with age. About 85% of people who die from heart disease are over the age of 65. For men, the average age of a first heart attack is 66 years.
Men have a greater risk for coronary artery disease and are more likely to have heart attacks earlier in life than women. Womenâ ' s risk for heart disease increases after menopause, and they are more likely to have angina than men.
Certain genetic factors increase the likelihood of developing important risk factors, such as diabetes, elevated cholesterol and high blood pressure.
African-Americans have the highest risk of heart disease, in part due to their high rates of severe high blood pressure, as well as diabetes and obesity.
Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome. Excess body fat, especially around the waist, can increase the risk for heart disease. Obesity also increases the risk for other conditions (high blood pressure, diabetes) that are associated with heart disease. Obesity is particularly hazardous when it is part of the metabolic syndrome, a pre-diabetic condition that is significantly associated with heart disease. This syndrome is diagnosed when three of the following are present:
[For more information, see In-Depth Report #53: Weight control and diet.]
Unhealthy Cholesterol Levels. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is the "bad" cholesterol responsible for many heart problems. Triglycerides are another type of lipid (fat molecule) that can be bad for the heart. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is the "good" cholesterol that helps protect against heart disease. Doctors test for a "total cholesterol" profile that includes measurements for LDL, HDL, and triglycerides. The ratio of these lipids can affect heart disease risk. [For more information, including cholesterol goals, see In-Depth Report #23: Cholesterol.]
High Blood Pressure. High blood pressure, or hypertension, has long been a proven cause of coronary artery disease and heart attack. A normal blood pressure reading is 120/80 mm Hg or lower. High blood pressure is generally considered to be a blood pressure reading greater than or equal to 140 mm Hg (systolic) or greater than or equal to 90 mm Hg (diastolic). Blood pressure readings in the prehypertension category (120 - 139 systolic or 80 - 89 diastolic) indicate an increased risk for developing hypertension. [For more information, see In-Depth Report #14: High blood pressure.]
Diabetes. Diabetes, especially for people whose blood sugar levels are not well controlled, significantly increases the risk of developing heart disease. In fact, heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death in people with diabetes. People with diabetes are also at risk for high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels, blood clotting problems, kidney disease, and impaired nerve function, all of which can damage the heart. [For more information, see In-Depth Report #9: Diabetes - type 1; or In-Depth Report #60: Diabetes - type 2.]
Peripheral artery disease (PAD), aortic aneurysm, stroke, and renal artery stenosis are vascular diseases that increase the risk for heart attack. [See In-Depth Report #102: Peripheral artery disease. ]
Smoking. Smoking is the most important risk factor for heart disease. Smoking can cause elevated blood pressure, worsen lipids, and make platelets very sticky, raising the risk of clots. Although heavy cigarette smokers are at greatest risk, people who smoke as few as three cigarettes a day are at higher risk for blood vessel abnormalities that endanger the heart. Regular exposure to passive smoke also increases the risk of heart disease in nonsmokers. [For more information, see In-Depth Report #41: Smoking.]
Alcohol. Moderate alcohol consumption (one or two glasses a day) can help boost HDL â€śgoodâ€ť cholesterol levels. Alcohol may also prevent blood clots and inflammation. By contrast, heavy drinking harms the heart. In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death in alcoholics.
Diet. Diet plays an important role in the health of the heart, especially by reducing dietary sources of trans fats, saturated fats, and cholesterol and restricting salt intake that contributes to high blood pressure. [For more information, see In-Depth Report #43: Heart-healthy diet.]
Physical Inactivity. Exercise has a number of effects that benefit the heart and circulation, including improving cholesterol levels and blood pressure and maintaining weight control. People who are sedentary are almost twice as likely to suffer heart attacks as are people who exercise regularly.
All nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) -- with the exception of aspirin -- carry heart risks. NSAIDs and COX-2 inhibitors may increase the risk for death in patients who have experienced a heart attack. The risk is greatest at higher dosages, but not necessarily for length of time.
NSAIDs include nonprescription drugs like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and prescription drugs like diclofenac (Cataflam, Voltaren). Celecoxib (Celebrex) is currently the only COX-2 inhibitor that is available in the U.S. It has been linked to cardiovascular risks, such as heart attack and stroke. Patients who have had heart attacks should talk to their doctors before taking any of these drugs.
The American Heart Association recommends that patients who have, or who are at risk for, heart disease first try non-drug methods of pain relief (such as physical therapy, exercise, weight loss to reduce stress on joints, and heat or cold therapy). If these methods don't work, patients should take the lowest possible dose of acetaminophen (Tylenol) or aspirin. COX-2 inhibitors, such as celecoxib (Celebrex), should be the last resort.
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