Heart disease is America’s number one killer, and a leading cause of serious disability. In recognition of February as National Heart Month, the heart specialists at Tyrone Hospital wish to increase community awareness of the risk factors associated with heart disease and point out those that people can change to reduce their risk.
Tyrone Hospital cardiologist V. Janakiraman, M.D., said major risk factors are those that research has shown significantly increase the risk of heart disease. Some of the risk factors can be modified, treated or controlled, and some can’t.
Major risk factors that cannot be changed include increasing age, being male, and heredity, including race. Major risk factors that can be modified, treated or controlled by either changing your lifestyle or taking medicine or a combination of the two include tobacco smoke, high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, obesity and overweight, and diabetes.
“The more risk factors you have, the greater your chance of developing heart disease. Also, the greater the level of each risk factor, the more you are at risk,” said Dr. Janakiraman.
According to the American Heart Association, over 83 percent of people who die of heart disease are 65 or older. At older ages, women who have heart attacks are more likely than men are to die from them within a few weeks.
Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women do, and they have attacks earlier in life. After menopause, women’s death rate from heart disease increases. Dr. Janakiraman said it is important to note that heart disease is a top cause of death in women.
“Both genders need to pay careful attention to their heart health.”
If your parents have/had heart disease, then you are more likely to develop it. Dr. Janakiraman said certain groups are more at risk. African Americans tend to have more severe high blood pressure than Caucasians and therefore at higher risk of heart disease. Heart disease risk is also higher among Mexican Americans, American Indians, native Hawaiians and some Asian Americans. This is partly due to higher rates of obesity and diabetes in these groups.
“Most people with a strong family history of heart disease have one or more other risk factors.”
Dr. Janakiraman said you can’t control your age, gender or race, and you can’t control your family history. Therefore, it’s even more important to treat and control any other risk factors you have.
“A good first step is to see your primary care doctor to learn your blood pressure, blood cholesterol, to determine a healthy weight, and to be checked for diabetes. All of these are risk factors can be changed to lower your risk for heart disease. People should work with their primary care doctor and make appropriate lifestyle changes to get the levels for these risk factors into a healthy range.”
One of the major risk factors that can be changed is high blood pressure. High blood pressure increases the heart’s workload, causing the heart to thicken and become stiffer. Normal blood pressure is 120/80. When high blood pressure exists with obesity, smoking, high blood cholesterol levels or diabetes, the risk of heart attack increases several times.
Those who smoke can lower their risk of heart disease by quitting. Smokers’ risk of developing coronary heart disease is two to four times that of nonsmokers. Cigarette smoking also acts with other risk factors to greatly increase the risk for heart disease. Exposure to other people’s smoke increases the risk of heart disease even for nonsmokers.
“If you smoke, quit because if affects not only your health but the health of those around you,” said Dr. Janakiraman.
As your blood cholesterol rises, so does your risk of heart disease. This is a risk factor that can also be changed. A person’s cholesterol level is also affected by age, gender, heredity and diet. A total cholesterol greater than 240 is considered high-risk.
An inactive lifestyle is a risk factor for heart disease. Regular, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity helps prevent heart and blood vessel disease. The more vigorous the activity, the greater your benefits. However, even moderate-intensity activities, such as a brisk 30 minute walk, help if done regularly and long term. Exercise brings a variety of benefits as it can help control blood cholesterol, and diabetes as well as obesity and in some people it can even help lower blood pressure.
People who have excess body fat – especially if a lot of it is at the waist – are more likely to develop heart disease even if they have no other risk factors. Excess weight increases the heart’s work. It also raises blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels. It can also make diabetes more likely to develop.
“Many obese and overweight people may have difficulty losing weight. But every pound lost can help. By losing even as few as 10 pounds, you can lower your heart disease risk,” said Dr. Janakiraman.
Diabetes seriously increases your risk of developing heart disease. Even when blood glucose levels are under control, diabetes still increases the risk of developing heart disease. The risks are even greater if blood sugar is not well controlled. About three-quarters of people with diabetes die of some form of heart or blood vessel disease. If you have diabetes, Dr. Janakiraman said it’s extremely important to work with your healthcare provider to manage it and control any of the other heart disease risk factors that you can.
There are also some other risk factors that contribute to the development of heart disease.
Individual response to stress may be a contributing factor. Some scientists have noted a relationship between coronary heart disease risk and stress in a person’s life, their health behaviors and socioeconomic status. These factors may affect established risk factors. For example, people under stress may overeat, start smoking or smoke more than they otherwise would.
Drinking too much alcohol (more than one drink for women or two drinks for men per day) is also a contributing risk factor. Alcohol can raise blood pressure and cause heart failure. It can bump up cholesterol levels and produce irregular heartbeats. It also contributes to obesity and a host of other health issues.
Dr. Janakiraman said a person’s ability to function in everyday life may be affected significantly if they have to live with a damaged heart. “That is why we want to encourage people to take steps to reduce their risk for developing heart disease. There are many things people can do to keep their heart healthy, they just need to make a commitment to take those steps.”
V. Janakiraman, M.D., and his partner Mukul Bhatnagar, M.D. are cardiologists who practice at Tyrone Hospital. Their Tyrone practice is in addition to their practice at Altoona Regional Health System. Between them they have provided services in Tyrone for more than 25 years.