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Risk Factors

Do you know your risk for heart disease? Learn what increases our cardiovascular risk and how we can reduce or control risk factors that we may have.

  • What is the obesity paradox?
  • The obesity paradox is a phenomenon in which obesity may have a protective effect on survival in certain groups of patients. For example, research has found that obese patients with heart failure or diabetes tend to live longer than similar patients who are underweight or a normal weight. Since obesity almost always has a negative impact on health, experts continue to conduct research to better understand this phenomenon.
  • What is a healthy weight for children?
  • Body mass index (BMI) is used to determine whether a child falls into an underweight, healthy weight, overweight or obese range. For children, BMI is calculated using height and weight, and takes into account both age and gender. Children with a BMI falling between the 5th and 85th percentile are considered a healthy weight.
  • Does age impact risk for heart disease?
  • Yes, there are certain risk factors associated with heart disease that we can’t control, including age. As you get older, your risk of heart disease increases. It’s especially important to address any risk factors that you can control, such as high blood pressure or lack of physical activity, in order to reduce risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • What is primary and secondary heart disease prevention?
  • Primary prevention of heart disease refers to preventing the development of heart disease by addressing factors that increase risk for heart disease and making healthy lifestyle choices. Secondary prevention aims to reduce risk of a future heart event in individuals already diagnosed with heart disease.
  • What are the health risks associated with cigarette smoking?
  • Cigarette smoking harms nearly every organ in the body and causes about one in five deaths each year in the United States. Not only does smoking increase risk for heart disease, heart attack, stroke, cancer, and lung disease, it diminishes overall health. The good news is that quitting smoking can drastically reduce risk for these conditions, even after just a short period of time.
  • At what age should I worry about heart disease?
  • Risk factors that lead to heart disease often develop slowly over time and can take decades to develop. That’s why it’s important to make healthy lifestyle choices like eating healthystaying active and maintaining a healthy weight, at all stages in life. As an adult, it’s especially important to work closely with your doctor to monitor key risk factors and address any risk factors to reduce risk for heart disease.
  • At what age should I worry about my cholesterol?
  • More than one-third of Americans have high cholesterol and risk for high cholesterol increases with age. However, high cholesterol can be a problem at any age. It’s estimated that 22% of adults in their 20s have high cholesterol and 62% of adults in their 50s have high cholesterol. It’s important to have cholesterol checked regularly and make healthy lifestyle choices like eating healthy and staying active, which help control cholesterol levels.
  • What is abdominal obesity?
  • Abdominal obesity is defined as having a waist circumference greater than 40 inches for a man or 35 inches for a woman. Although excess fat can have a negative impact on health, carrying extra belly fat is especially harmful, increasing risk for heart diseasediabetes and cancer, among other conditions. The good news is that losing just 3-5% of body weight can help reduce cardiovascular risk and improve overall health.
  • How does age impact heart failure risk?
  • Since aging can weaken the heart muscle and older individuals have pre-existing medical conditions that may lead to heart failure, heart failure is more common in older adults over 65 years of age. However, heart failure can occur at any age. The good news is that simple healthy lifestyle choices can reduce risk for heart failure, like eating healthy, staying active, avoiding smoking, and maintaining a healthy weight.
  • What is the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats?
  • Eating saturated fats raises the level of cholesterol in the blood, which increases risk of heart disease and stroke. Unsaturated fats, however, help lower cholesterol levels and, in moderation, can lower risk of heart disease. Most saturated fats come from meat and dairy products, as well as baked and fried foods. Unsaturated fats can be found in fish, nuts, seeds and certain oils. Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats is recommended to reduce risk for heart disease.
  • How does atrial fibrillation differ in men and women?
  • Although risk for atrial fibrillation, or AFib, increases with age, women tend to develop AFib around 75 years of age (compared to 67 for men). Older women with AFib have significantly greater risk of stroke and death compared to men with AFib. The good news is that there are many treatment options for AFib that can significantly reduce risk of complications.
  • What are the risks associated with high cholesterol?
  • High cholesterol can cause atherosclerosis, the build-up of plaque on artery walls. This accumulation of deposits can cause serious complications, such as chest painheart attack and stroke. High cholesterol is largely preventable and treatable, so getting screened and making healthy lifestyle choices can go a long way in controlling cholesterol levels.
  • At what age should I be concerned about heart failure?
  • Heart failure affects people of all ages and nearly 1.4 million individuals with congestive heart failure are younger than 60 years of age. However, risk for heart failure does increase with age and making healthy lifestyle choices to reduce risk for heart failure is important in all stages of life.
  • What is hypertension?
  • Hypertension, often referred to as high blood pressure, occurs when the force of blood against the artery walls is too high. High blood pressure is often referred to as the “silent killer,” because it often causes no symptoms and if left uncontrolled, increases risk for heart attack and stroke.
  • What are the traditional risk factors for heart disease?
  • Through decades of research, we’ve learned that certain factors increase risk for heart disease—some of which we can control and a few of which we can’t. Modifiable risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, physical inactivity and poor diet. Risk factors that we can’t control include age, gender, race or ethnicity and family history of heart disease. It’s important to address risk factors that we can control to help prevent heart disease.
  • What is sedentary or leisure sitting time?
  • Sedentary time, often referred to by experts as leisure sitting time, refers to time spent physically inactive. The most common examples of sedentary time include sitting in front of a computer or desk at work or watching television. Prolonged periods of sedentary time on a regular basis have been shown to have a negative impact on overall health.
  • What are health disparities?
  • Health disparities refer to differences in health outcomes or burdens of disease between groups of people. Health disparities can exist between different populations of race, sex, income, or even geographic location. In health care, the goal is to eliminate these differences so all individuals have the same ability to achieve good health.
  • How common are heart complications from non-cardiac surgery?
  • All surgery carries risk of complications, some of which can be serious. Although heart complications can be common, risk varies depending on the characteristics of each patient. Using risk calculators, doctors can determine whether a patient is low risk, with less than 1% chance of heart complications from surgery, or considered to have elevated risk for complications. Patients should always weigh the risks and benefits of surgery with their doctor before making treatment decisions.
  • What causes heart disease in young adults?
  • Throughout adulthood, the same factors increase risk for heart disease, including age, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, tobacco use, lack of physical activity and family medical history. However, it is likely that heart disease in young adults is strongly related to genetic factors that are harder to modify. That’s why it’s important to identify cardiovascular risk factors early in life to help address risk factors and reduce risk of developing heart disease.
  • What is a cardiovascular risk estimate?
  • To identify patients at increased risk for heart disease, doctors use tools to estimate a person’s short and long-term risk of heart disease. These tools take into account factors closely related to cardiovascular risk, such as age, sex, cholesterol and smoking status, to estimate risk of developing heart disease in a given time period. Most estimates calculate short-term risk (risk of developing heart disease in the next 10 years) or long-term risk (risk of developing heart disease in an entire lifetime).
  • Is smokeless tobacco harmful to health?
  • Yes. There is no safe form of tobacco and at least 28 chemicals in smokeless tobacco have been found to cause cancer. In addition to causing cancer, smokeless tobacco use may cause heart disease, gum disease and other potentially serious conditions.
  • Why does chronic kidney disease increase risk for heart disease?
  • Chronic kidney disease can lead to a number of health complications like diabetes and high blood pressure, which put patients at significantly increased risk for heart disease. Chronic kidney disease is now an established risk factor for heart disease and prevention strategies to reduce cardiovascular risk are critical for patients with this condition.
  • Does atrial fibrillation increase stroke risk?
  • Yes. Left untreated, AFib causes a five-fold increase in risk for stroke and doubles the risk of heart-related deaths. However, treatment and medication can help significantly reduce risk of complications.

  • What increases risk for angina?
  • A number of factors can increase risk for chest pain, called angina, including tobacco use, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, overweight/obesity, stress and a lack of exercise. Age and family history also can increase risk for developing angina.
  • How can I reduce my risk for heart disease?
  • Healthy lifestyle choices are key to reducing risk for heart disease. By eating a heart-healthy diet and staying physically active, you can help significantly reduce heart disease risk. Knowing your numbers—body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar—and family history is also important so that you can address any risk factors you may have for heart disease.

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