3 Lesser Known Risk Factors for Heart Disease

When it comes to heart disease, the number 1 cause of death in the US, there are some things you can change and others you can’t. We’ve all heard about recommendations for exercising, not smoking, losing weight, and so on. There are several risk factors that aren’t as commonly talked about, but are just as important to know. It’s true you can’t change all of your risk factors. We refer to the ones you can change as being modifiable, which are often the lifestyle risk factors such as smoking, diet, and physical activity. The ones you can’t do much about are called non-modifiable risk factors and include things like older age, your sex, and what your ole’ Ma and Pa gave you (genetics). So should you throw in the towel? Absolutely not! According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 80% of your risk could be reduced through what we call risk factor modification, or optimizing those modifiable risk factors.

In order to lower your risk as much as possible though, it’s important you know what all your risk factors are. Here are 3 risk factors for heart disease you might not have known about, but are just as important as all the others. In fact, knowing about them early could help you get a head start on preventing your first heart attack!

Ethnicity

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People of certain backgrounds are at increased risk of heart disease, to no fault of their own. The reason for this could be 2-fold. It could indicate that certain ethnic backgrounds go along with certain genes that increase people’s risk of heart disease. It could also indicate an ugly truth though, which is that minority groups often face worse health outcomes in the US for a variety of reasons that many have hypothesized could include (but are not limited to) access to care, socioeconomic status, health literacy, and even a concept called implicit bias – when providers may think about and treat patients differently without even realizing it – that all affect how healthcare systems treat different patients.

For example, according to the American Heart Association, blacks in the US die of cardiovascular disease 33% more of the time than the general US population at any age. Also, American Indians die about twice as much compared to the general US population before the age of the 65. People of Guyanese descent in particular are at a high risk of severe coronary artery disease (which can lead to heart attacks and death), high blood pressure, and high cholesterol compared to whites despite weighing less in some studies.

Preeclampsia

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Did you know that heart disease is not just a man’s disease? While women have a lower risk of heart disease than men earlier in life, after menopause, women quickly catch up. Even earlier in life though, women can get hints about their risk of developing heart disease. Preeclampsia, a condition that affects about 5-8% of pregnancies resulting in high blood pressure, protein in the urine, swelling, and headaches, has been shown to be an important risk factor for heart disease later in life. According to the Preeclampsia Foundation, being diagnosed with preeclampsia doubles the risk of developing heart disease later in life. It’s been shown that 2 out of 3 women who had preeclampsia will ultimately die of heart disease.

So what can you do about it? As I like to say, we may not be able to change the past, but we can change the future. Many of the same things you can do to decrease your risk of heart disease also decrease your risk of having preeclampsia. So whether you’re looking to get pregnant or whether you’ve already been diagnosed with preeclampsia, focusing on those same healthy lifestyle modifications such as losing weight if you need to, eating healthy, controlling your cholesterol, and keeping your blood pressure in the normal range will be your ticket to heart health.

Mental Wellness

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Is all this talk about heart disease stressing you out? Not to make light of a serious topic, but mental health is also important for heart health. While science may not have the whole mind-body connection worked out, we do know that conditions such as stress and depression are absolutely associated with heart disease. For example, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute reports that people living with depression develop coronary artery disease 64% more of the time than those who aren’t and people who have known coronary artery disease and are depressed are 59% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke. It’s true that part of this may be attributed to the fact that people with depression are often less likely to have healthy lifestyle choices such as a healthy diet and regular exercise, but regardless of the reason, the connection can’t be denied.

If you’re young, healthy, and don’t have any medical problems, fantastic! Now is exactly the time to start thinking about your risk of heart disease. It takes many years, even decades for heart disease to get to the point of producing symptoms. If you’re a little older or have already been diagnosed with some risk factors for heart disease like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, amazing! Being aggressive about healthy lifestyle choices can lower your risk and may even allow you to come off of some of your medications. Knowing your risk is the first step in reducing it.

 

If you have questions about your heart health, visit our website to check your risk for heart disease or to get in touch.

Published by: Mark P. Abrams, MD

I'm an Internist, Educator, and Cardiology fellow in training. As the Director of Patient Engagement at Heartbeat Health, my goal is to make trustworthy information easily accessible and more available so that people can become more active members of their healthcare teams. By joining together, we can work toward keeping more people healthier, happier, and living longer fulfilling lives.

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