According to the World Health Organization, approximately 17 million people around the world die from cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, every year. Around 1 million of these deaths occur in the US alone – the equivalent to one death every 33 seconds.

With figures like these, it is no surprise that heart disease is the main cause of death in the US.

But what is surprising is that many of these deaths could be prevented, simply by taking better care of our health.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a new Vital Signs report revealing that in 2010, more than 200,000 deaths from heart disease and stroke could have been avoided in the US alone if more people had adopted healthy habits to reduce risk factors.

So why are so many of us putting our heart health at risk? And what can we do to improve heart health and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD)?

In line with American Heart Month this February, we look at the risk factors for CVD and investigate what lifestyle factors can contribute to a healthy heart.

CVD is a general term used to describe a series of conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels.

These conditions include coronary heart disease, stroke, heart failure, atherosclerosis and peripheral heart disease.

Many risk factors for CVD cannot be modified. For example, the risk of CVD is higher in older populations. The American Heart Association (AHA) state that around 80% of individuals who die from CVD are aged 65 years or older.

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), men have an increased risk for heart disease after the age of 45, while women have a higher risk after the age of 55.

Christopher Allen, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation (BHF) in the UK, told Medical News Today that women often believe they are less likely to develop heart disease than men:

Many women think that coronary heart disease only affects men, but that’s not true.

While men may be more likely to develop coronary heart disease at an earlier age, once women go through the menopause the numbers are fairly similar. It’s important that women are just as aware of their heart health as men.”

The risk of CVD is also increased if a person has a family history of early heart disease. The NHLBI state that a person is more likely to develop heart disease if their father or brother had a heart attack before the age of 55, or if their mother or sister had one before the age of 65.

Ethnicity is also a risk factor. Individuals who are South Asian or Afro-Caribbean have an increased risk of CVD.

However, regardless of your age and background, there are risk factors for CVD that you can have influence over.

Smoking is a major cause of heart disease. According to the CDC, cigarette smokers are two to four times more likely to develop coronary heart disease than non-smokers and have double the risk of stroke.

The CDC note that even people who smoke fewer than five cigarettes a day can have early signs of CVD.

Share on Pinterest
Smokers are up to four times more likely to develop coronary heart disease than non-smokers and have double the risk of stroke.

Of course, the best way to reduce this risk factor is to give up smoking. But this is easier said than done.

In order to help individuals quit smoking to reduce their risk of CVD, the AHA recommend following a five-step process:

  • Set a quit date within the next 7 days. The AHA have even created a “No Smoking Contract” to help individuals stick to this day.
  • Choose a method to stop smoking. This could involve stopping smoking completely on the quit day, gradually reducing the number of cigarettes smoked each day until quit day, or smoking only a part of each cigarette until quit day.
  • Decide if nicotine replacement therapy will help quit smoking. This comes in the form of a gum, spray, patch or inhaler.
  • Plan for quit day. Set rewards for not smoking, such a watching a movie with friends.
  • Stop smoking on quit day. The AHA say that as soon as smoking is stopped, blood circulation increases and blood pressure and heart rate improves.

According to the CDC, more than one third of the US population suffers from obesity – a condition that significantly increases the risk of CVD.

Being overweight or obese can cause a build-up of plaque in the arteries. If an area of plaque ruptures, this can form a blood clot, and if the blood clot is close to the brain, this may cause stroke.

Obesity can also cause diabetes – a disease that is a leading cause of heart disease and stroke.

Furthermore, obesity can cause metabolic syndrome – a group of risk factors that also increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Regular moderate exercise can help to reduce the risk of obesity, therefore cutting the risk of CVD.

The US Department of Health and Human Services recommend that children aged between 6 and 17 years should carry out 60 minutes of physical aerobic activity each day, while adults aged between 18 and 64 should have 30 minutes of physical aerobic activity each day.

However, the CDC state that in 2011, only 48.4% of adults aged 18 and over met these physical activity guidelines.

But why do we fail to meet these recommendations?

The AHA note that in these modern times, people tend to be less physically active as a result of better technology and public transportation.

Since 1950, sedentary employment has increased by 83%, and physically active jobs now only make up around 25% of the US workforce.

But these factors should not get in the way of good heart health. The AHA state that moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, for as little as half an hour a day could:

  • Reduce the risk of coronary heart disease in women by 30-40%
  • Reduce the risk of stroke by 20% in moderately active people and 27% in highly active individuals
  • Combat obesity as well as high blood pressure and poor cholesterol that could head to heart attack and stroke.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study suggesting that physically fit teenagers are almost 20% less likely to suffer a heart attack later in life.

An unhealthy diet is a significant risk factor for CVD. A diet high in fat, sugar and salt can lead to high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity – all of which can cause heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

Dr. Patrice Desvigne-Nickens, program director of the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences at the NHLBI, told Medical News Today that a healthy diet is “an important cornerstone” to a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Share on Pinterest
Following a healthy diet can prevent weight gain, reduce the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels.

She explained that the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan is a balanced and flexible diet that focuses on reducing risk factors of CVD.

The DASH diet consists of foods that are low in saturated fats and dietary cholesterol, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, legumes, seeds, vegetable oils and nuts.

It also focuses on consuming fewer candies, added sugars, beverages high in sugar and less red meat.

Previous research has also hailed other diets for their benefits to heart health. Medical News Today recently reported on a study suggesting that a Mediterranean diet could reduce the risk of peripheral heart disease.

“A healthy, balanced diet can help to prevent weight gain, reduce your risk of diabetes and high blood pressure, and lower cholesterol levels,” said Christopher Allen of the BHF.

“Try to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and cut back on your intake of salt and saturated fat. Replace saturated fats like butter or lard with unsaturated fats like olive oil. Instead of reaching for the salt shaker, add herbs and spices to your cooking for flavour.”

Although quitting smoking, carrying out regular exercise and adopting a healthy diet may reduce the risk of CVD, it is important to remember that some risk factors for CVD, such as age, ethnicity and family history of heart disease, cannot be changed.

Dr. Desvigne-Nickens explained that some individuals can still experience high cholesterol, for example, even if they have adopted a healthy lifestyle. She said in these cases, medication, such as statins and aspirin, can be critical in reducing the risk of CVD.

However, Christopher Allen told Medical News Today that these medications are not a substitute for a healthy lifestyle:

Though medications are vital to many people, they are more effective when combined with exercise and a healthy diet.

If you have any queries about your medication, make sure you talk to your GP. It’s important not to stop taking drugs if they have been prescribed to you.”

Dr. Desvigne-Nickens told Medical News Today that it is important for people to understand that for both men and women, having more than one risk factor multiplies the risk of developing CVD.

“Having one risk factor doubles your risk for disease; having two risks quadruples your risk for developing disease; having three risks increases risk by tenfold,” she explains.

“Don’t choose among risk factors, take charge and control your risks. You can reduce your risk for heart disease by controlling risk factors and adopting a healthy lifestyle.”

She added that knowing your risk is important in considering strategies to protect your heart health:

Controlling risk factors can significantly reduce risk. So, do not smoke, exercise regularly and maintain a normal weight and healthy diet. Know your numbers and work with your doctor if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or elevated blood cholesterol.”

Dr. Desvigne-Nickens noted that to keep track of heart health, it is wise to have blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels checked regularly by a health professional.

“It is important that doctors discuss heart health with their patients, and it’s important that individuals be proactive, know their risk factors, and talk with their doctors to develop the best treatment to protect their heart health,” she added.

There is no doubt that we can help improve our own heart health by adopting a healthy lifestyle, but Allen noted that it is down to governments to improve future heart health.

“The government has the power to improve the heart health of the next generation by focusing on helping young people avoid cigarettes and junk food, and learn how to save a life,” he explained.

Share on Pinterest
The British Heart Foundation says junk food advertisements aimed at children may be promoting obesity, therefore increasing CVD risk.

Allen added that there should be focus on ensuring children avoid taking up smoking. He said that removing all logos and and “glitzy” designs would help to make smoking less attractive to young people.

He also noted that children are “bombarded” with advertisements for junk food, both on TV and over the internet.

“Obese children are more likely to become obese adults, so we want the government to ban junk food ads before 9pm, as well as making sure they are protected online,” he said.

But for now, it seems that for all age groups, adopting a healthy lifestyle is the best way to look after your heart.

As Dr. Desvigne-Nickens said:

“You are worth it. You are never too young or too old to take charge of your health and minimize your risks for heart disease.”