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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 are symptoms of atrial fibrillation?

  • Most common symptoms of atrial fibrillation include chest pain, palpitations, weakness, lightheadedness, confusion, and shortness of breath. These symptoms may be chronic, lasting for long periods of time, or come and go, lasting for only a few minutes at a time. However, some people with atrial fibrillation experience no symptoms at all.
  • What do my blood pressure numbers mean?

  • Your blood pressure reading has two parts. The top number (systolic) represents the pressure of the blood against your arteries when your heart contracts. The lower number (diastolic) is the pressure between beats when your heart muscle relaxes. Both numbers are important.  Your doctor or nurse can check your blood pressure during an office visit. You can also measure your blood pressure yourself with a home device. Keep in mind that your blood pressure will rise and fall depending on the time of the day and how active you are.  It is more accurate to look at overall trends rather than a single number.

    Blood pressure is directly associated with the risk of cardiovascular disease.  Ideal blood pressure is below 120/80. Your risk goes up proportionally as your blood pressure rises above that level.  If your blood pressure is elevated, your doctor will recommend that you make changes to your diet and exercise habits. You may also need to take blood pressure lowering medicines.


    Systolic (mm Hg) 

    Diastolic (mm Hg)



    less than 120

    less than 80





        Stage 1



        Stage 2

    160 or higher

    100 or higher

  • What causes sudden cardiac death?

  • Sudden cardiac death is most often caused by arrhythmias, or abnormal heart rhythms, that cause the heart to stop beating. However, it can be the result of many other cardiac causes, and usually results in death within 1 hour of the onset of symptoms.
  • What causes sleep apnea?
  • Sleep apnea is most commonly caused by excessive relaxation of the throat muscles, called obstructive sleep apnea. However, sleep apnea can also be caused by the malfunction of brain signals during sleep, known as central sleep apnea, or a combination of the two, called complex sleep apnea.
  • What complications are smokers most at risk for following surgery?

  • Smoking significantly increases risk for postoperative complications, such as pneumonia, wound infections and pulmonary complications, including heart attack and stroke. These complications can be extremely serious and often fatal.
  • What foods are highest in omega-3 fatty acids?

  • Flaxseed and flaxseed oil are foods containing the most omega-3 fatty acids, followed by certain fish, fish oils and nuts. Certain plants and spices are also high in omega-3 fatty acid, such as fresh basil, dried oregano and grape leaves. 

  • What foods are low in sodium and high in potassium?
  • Most fruits, vegetables and dairy products have a low sodium-potassium ratio, meaning they are good sources of potassium without high levels of salt. Processed foods, on the other hand, are often high in sodium and contain less potassium.
  • What foods should I avoid when trying to limit sodium intake?

  • While many foods naturally contain small amounts of sodium, it is estimated that 75 percent of dietary sodium comes from processed foods. When limiting salt intake, try to avoid prepared meals and limit consumption of condiments, canned and frozen foods, and packaged snacks, which contain some of the highest concentrations of sodium. Always read food labels when possible to help accurately measure your salt intake each day.
  • What foods high in flavanol?

  • Heart-healthy flavanols can be found in many fruits and vegetables, such as apples, blueberries, black beans and tomatoes. Dark chocolate and other chocolates that are the least processed and contain the greatest levels of cocoa powder are highest in flavanol and other heart-healthy nutrients.
  • What does the dietary portfolio consist of?

  • The four categories of the dietary portfolio are soy protein, sticky fibers, plant sterols and nuts. Good sources of soy protein include soy-based meat substitutes, such as soy burgers, soy cold cuts and soy milk. Sticky fibers can be found in products such as Metamucil, or grains such as oats and barley. Plant sterols can be naturally found in some foods, such as avocados, corn oil, and sunflower seeds, and is often added to foods, such as margarine and fruit drinks. Lastly, nuts like almonds and pistachios are part of the dietary portfolio.
  • What else can I do to control my blood pressure?

  • Making dietary changes to reduce sodium intake is a big part of blood pressure control.  But, there are other things you can do to help lower your blood pressure and improve your heart health.  Here are a few:

    • Lose weight if you’re overweight.
    • Get regular exercise
    • Limit alcohol to no more than one drink per day for women or two drinks a day for men.
    • Check your blood pressure regularly and work to stay within your target range.
    • Take your blood pressure medicine the way your doctor has directed.
  • What are the symptoms of high blood pressure?

  • High blood pressure often has no symptoms, which is why it is called the “silent killer.” Because hypertension only causes some symptoms like dizziness or headaches when it reaches a severe stage, it is important to have your blood pressure checked regularly, especially if you have a family history of heart disease or high blood pressure.
  • What are the symptoms of PTSD?

  • Symptoms of PTSD often fall into three main categories—reliving the traumatic event, avoidance (feeling detached and lacking emotion or feelings), and hyperarousal (irritable and unable to sleep). Although these symptoms often begin immediately after the traumatic incident, they can show up much later in some individuals, resulting in delayed-onset PTSD.
  • What are the warning signs of PAD?

  • The first inkling that you have PAD is often a painful cramp in the calf or thigh that occurs repeatedly when you walk, but disappears when you’re at rest.  This symptom is known as intermittent claudication.  People with PAD often curtail their activity to avoid further pain. However, inactivity only worsens the condition, creating a downward spiral.

    As PAD becomes more advanced, other symptoms may develop including:

    • Aching or burning in your feet and toes, especially when lying down at night
    • Redness or other color changes to the skin on your feet
    • Skin on the feet that feels cool to the touch
    • Sores on your toes or feet that do not heal
  • What causes peripartum cardiomyopathy?

  • Although researchers are not yet sure of the exact causes of this condition, some propose that it may be due to hormonal abnormalities, malnutrition, inflammation or immune system responses during pregnancy.
  • What can I do to reduce my sodium intake?
  • Most of the sodium you get each day comes from processed foods rather than salt you use in cooking and at the table. Here are some tips to help you shake the sodium out of your diet: 

    • Avoid prepared foods. High sodium foods include:

      • Salty snacks such as chips and pretzels
      • Canned soups and sauces
      • Cured meats such as bacon and ham
      • Foods packed in salt water such as pickles, olives, and canned tuna
      • Frozen pizzas and dinners
      • Fast food

    • Use fresh foods whenever possible. Good choices include:

      • Fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables without added salt
      • Fresh meats, fish, and poultry rather than cooked or prepared items
      • Herbs and spices as seasoning instead than salt

    • Learn to read food labels.  Look at the “Nutrition Facts” panel on the label of packaged foods. This will tell you how much sodium is in the food.  When figuring out your sodium intake from the food label, keep in mind:

      • The milligrams (mg) listed is per serving. It is not for the whole package.  If you eat more or less than what they consider one serving, you’ll have to do the math to figure out how much sodium you are getting.

      • The percent of daily value (% DV) is based on 2400 mg a day, not the recommended 1500 mg. That means the sodium in a serving is a higher percent of your daily limit than what is listed on the label.

    • Choose carefully in restaurants. Restaurant food is high in sodium. Some ways to eat out and still keep your sodium level under control include:

      • Having your meal prepared without added salt
      • Asking that sauces, gravies, and salad dressings be served on the side
      • Selecting fresh vegetables, fruits, and salads and plain meats or fish from the menu
  • Why are most heart attacks during pregnancy caused by coronary dissection?

  • Experts believe that coronary dissection is more common during pregnancy because the walls of the arteries become weakened, due to the increase in the blood supply and blood flow during pregnancy.
  • Why are female smokers at greater risk for heart disease than men?

  • There are many possible explanations for increased cardiovascular risk in female smokers, one of which is biology. It is possible that women are more sensitive than men to the harmful effects of smoking, making them more susceptible to adverse health effects such as heart disease. However, more research is needed to identify the exact causes of increased cardiovascular risk in female smokers.
  • Why are races affected disproportionally by overweight and obesity?
  • There are many factors that may affect the health and weight of different populations, such as diet, culture and genetics. However, further research is needed to determine the exact causes.
  • Why do low-income neighborhoods have poorer health than the rest of the nation?

  • Although the causes of poorer health in low-income neighborhoods are unclear, it is likely that factors limiting exercise and healthy eating contribute to these outcomes, as well as increased stress and poor access to healthcare.
  • Why does depression increase risk for stroke?

  • The exact cause of increased risk for stroke with depression is unknown. However, it is clear that there are links between mental health and risk for a variety of health conditions, such as stroke, heart disease and diabetes. It is possible that depression makes the body increasingly susceptible to these conditions, and/or that having a positive mental state helps protect against these negative effects.
  • Why can increased weight increase risk for death?

  • Although the body needs some fat to function properly, carrying excess fat increases risk for a variety of health conditions, such as heart disease and cancer, and can take a toll on the body over time. Therefore, by losing excess weight, you can help improve your overall health and reduce risk for death.
  • Why are women underrepresented in cardiovascular research studies?
  • Since cardiovascular disease was originally thought to be more prevalent in men, most research targeted men as participants. Even now that research has shown that heart disease is not only the number one killer of women and men, and that it actually kills more women each year than men nationwide, many women do not know this. Therefore, the lack of female participation in cardiovascular studies may be largely due to the lack of awareness.  It is also believed that many women, juggling their many responsibilities in life, are often so concerned with taking care of others that they fail to take the time to address their own health needs.
  • Why could living alone have a negative impact on health?

  • Many studies have shown that feelings of isolation and a lack of social support can have a negative impact on physical health. Although further research is needed, it is possible that living alone could lead to negative feelings of loneliness, which in turn may affect overall health.
  • Why do children need 60 minutes of physical activity a day for good health?

  • Although experts do not know exactly how much exercise children need to minimize cardiovascular risk, research shows that 60 minutes is the minimum amount of physical activity that children need to promote good health. Recent research shows that the more children exercise on a regular basis, the less likely they are to have cardiovascular risk factors, such as being overweight or having high blood pressure.

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