Heart attacks are not the only type of heart disease but it is among the most common type and also one of the deadliest. Every year, approximately 1.5 million heart attacks occur in the United States. Not all result in death but can still cause significant damage to the heart that is irreversible. Preventing a heart attack should therefore be the focus of every person, especially people who are at risk.
What are heart attack risks?
A heart attack is more likely to occur in certain people and under certain circumstances. These circumstances are referred to as risk factors. The more risk factors a person has, the more likely they are to suffer with a heart attack.
The absence of these heart attack risk factors does not mean that a person will not have a heart attack. It just means that a person without these risk factors is less likely to have a heart attack than a person with one or more of these risks.
Some of these risk factors are modifiable meaning that it can be changed or avoided. Modifiable risk factors are usually related to diet and lifestyle. Other risk factors are non-modifiable meaning that it cannot be changed, discontinued or avoided. Age and genetics are two such factors.
However, it does not mean that a heart attack is inevitable even when these non-modifiable risk factors are present. Often by reducing the modifiable risk factors the effects of the non-modifiable risk factors can be minimized.
Read more on signs that a heart attack may occur soon.
Tobacco smoking is one of the major risk factors for a heart attack. It contributes to coronary artery disease (CAD) which is one of the most common causes of heart attacks. Even passive smoking (second hand smoke) can increase the risk. The greater the smoke exposure, the greater the risk of a heart attack. It is therefore important that all smoking is discontinued entirely, be it cigarette, cigar or pipe smoking.
Alcohol consumption can also contribute to coronary artery disease. Although there have been several studies that have indicated that alcohol may have some benefits in preventing heart disease, the quantity of alcohol consumed daily is a factor. Having a daily drink of 1 or 2 units may be beneficial to some degree. However, having more than the recommended daily allowance or binge drinking has the opposite effect and increases the risk of heart attacks.
High cholesterol is a well known risk factor for coronary artery disease and heart attacks. Cholesterol is only one type of lipid (fat) that circulates in the bloodstream. Other lipids like triglycerides can also pose a risk if the levels in the bloodstream are high. These lipids can deposit in the walls of arteries, like the coronary arteries of the heart, and cause it to narrow which is known as coronary artery disease.
High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is another leading risk factor for a heart attack. The risk increases with long term hypertension (high blood pressure), especially if it is not treated and properly managed. Hypertension can damage the arteries and contribute to coronary artery disease. It is often termed the silent killer because many people with hypertension will not experience any symptoms. Without regular screening, hypertension can persist for years and remain untreated.
Diabetes is another major risk factor for coronary artery disease (CAD). When uncontrolled, it can damage blood vessels and lead to fatty plaques in the artery walls (atherosclerosis). This occurs over years and decades. Diabetes can also contribute to other types of heart disease, apart from a heart attack which ultimately lead to heart failure. The risk is minimized if the blood glucose levels are well controlled.
Obesity is one of the leading risk factors for heart attacks and accounts for the rise in heart attacks in developed nations. Obesity contributes to high blood pressure, high blood lipids and diabetes. All of these conditions in turn can lead to coronary artery disease which may culminate in a heart attack. In addition, obesity is usually linked to a high risk diet and a sedentary lifestyle which also play a role in heart attacks.
The modern diet is abundant in refined carbohydrates and saturated fats. In addition, fresh fruit and vegetable consumption is often low while sodium intake may be excessive. These dietary habits contributes to obesity, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and diabetes. The risk of these dietary habits is further reinforced by the benefits of the heart-friendly diets like the Mediterranean diet, which is abundant in vegetables, fruit, lean meat and unsaturated fats.
A sedentary lifestyle is not only a risk for diseases like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure but it also does not provide the necessary benefits for a healthy heart. Exercising at least 30 minutes a day for 5 days in a week can significantly reduce the risk of heart attacks. However, an exerise program should only be commenced according to a doctor’s instructions after the necessary diagnostic tests have been concluded.
Read more on sedentary lifestyle.
Age and Family Risk
Age and familial predisposition are two major non-modifiable risk factors. It cannot be changed but the overall risk of these factors can be minimized by making dietary and lifestyle changes.
Over 45 or 55
Men over the age of 45 years and women over the age of 55 years are at a greater risk of a heart attack than younger adults. However, by later in life around the age of 70 years, the risk of a heart attack between men and women is the same. Therefore people in these high risk age groups should undergo routin screening especially if there are additional risk factors present.
Siblings, Parents and Grandparents
There is a greater risk of a heart attack when first degree relatives (siblings or parents) have a heart attack early in life. This means that if a male relative is younger than 55 or a female relative is younger than 65 when they have a heart attack. The familial risk also extends to grandparents who had a heart attack early in life.