About Heart Disease
Heart disease is a condition in which fatty deposits, called atherosclerotic plaques, impinge or block the coronary arteries that supply the muscle of the heart with oxygenated blood. Also called coronary heart disease (CHD) and coronary artery disease (CAD), it drastically increases a patient's likelihood of suffering a myocardial infarction (MI), or heart attack. During an MI, blood flow to cardiac tissues is interrupted. This can permanently affect the way a patient's heart functions.
Risk factors are variables that increase the possibility of disease contraction. Some risk factors can be changed, while some cannot. The heart disease risk factors fall into both categories.
Uncontrollable Risk Factors
Several risk factors that cannot be changed exist. Male patients are at a higher risk of developing CAD than female patients; women's risk does increase post-menopausily, but their risk is still not as great as men's. The older a patient is the higher his or her risk of disease manifestation. As we age, our blood vessels are less elastic and become weaker and narrower; also heart muscle may become weaker or thinner. According to the American Heart Association, “over 83 percent of people who die of coronary heart disease are 65 years or over.”
Heredity is a risk factor that contributes greatly to the possibility of heart disease. However, heredity covers a few different variables that collectively add to a patient's risk. Race is a hereditary factor that patients have no control over. African American, Hispanics, Indian Americans, Hawaiians and some Asian Americans are high-risk populations. Genetic factors also increase a patient's risk for disease development. As does family history; those patients with family members that have had heart disease are more likely than others to suffer from CAD.
Controllable Risk Factors
For most people, heart disease risk factors are within the control of the individual patient and may be changed to improve the chances of disease contraction or progression. One of the worst things that anyone can do for their health is smoking tobacco. Cigarette smoking tends to increase risk more than cigar or pipe smoking. The compounds in tobacco smoke negatively alter the physiology of the lungs, heart and blood vessels. Smokers are at a two to four times greater likelihood of developing heart disease than nonsmokers. In nonsmokers, secondhand smoke also increases their risk of disease.
Other risk factors are often linked. Obesity is another predictor of heart disease. Generally with obesity, physical inactivity and diets high in saturated fats, simple sugars and excessive salt are present. As a result of a combination of these, patients show clinical symptoms of high blood pressure (hypertension) and high blood cholesterol (hyperlipidemia). Patients who are not obese may also present with hypertension and hyperlipidemia, but obese patients normally will have them as well.
Patients who suffer from diabetes mellitus are at a significantly increased risk of heart disease. About three-quarters of patients with diabetes will ultimately die of a cardiovascular disease complication.
Contributing Risk Factors
Other risk factors are not directly associated with disease development but may add an increased risk, especially when coupled with more direct risk factors. Extra stress in a patient's life can exacerbate already existing risk factors like hypertension and may cause unhealthy choices as a coping response, such as overeating.
Excessive alcohol intake can also make other conditions worse. However, drinking in moderation, such as one or two drinks a night, can actually have positive cardiovascular effects. Individuals who abstain from alcohol entirely actually have a slightly increased risk of heart disease over those who drink moderately.
American Heart Association: Risk Factors and Coronary Heart Disease
Mayo Clinic: Heart Disease: Risk Factors
National Heart Blood and Lung Institute: Heart Disease Risk Factors
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Heart Disease Risk Factors
Texas Heart Institute: Heart Disease Risk Factors for Adults
The Ohio State University Medical Center: Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors