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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.

  • How do risk factors that we can't control affect lifetime risk of heart disease?

  • Risk factors like blood pressure, cholesterol, smoking status and diabetes status  are controllable through lifestyle changes and working with your doctor. Although there are risk factors that are out of our control, such as family history, patients can still greatly reduce their cardiovascular risk by addressing risk factors that they can control.

  • How do I know if I have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)?

  • A telltale sign of OSA is chronic loud snoring, interspersed with sounds of gasping or choking. Often a person isn’t aware of his or her own snoring and it will take a family member or bed partner to point it out. (Not everyone who snores has OSA, however.)  Another prime indicator of OSA for most people is daytime sleepiness, although heart failure patients complain of this symptom less often.

    To confirm that you have OSA, your doctor will send you to an overnight sleep laboratory for specialized testing called polysomnography. If this technology isn’t available where you live, in-home monitoring devices may be an alternative. 

  • How can patients improve their health literacy?

  • Patients can help to improve their health literacy by improving upon their general reading skills. As health information can still seem confusing at times, patients should be sure to ask their healthcare providers for help when necessary, such as asking them to use more plain language in explaining conditions or asking for a medical interpreter if their primary language is not English.
  • How can I reduce my risk for heart attack?

  • You can significantly reduce risk for heart attack by knowing your numbers and addressing any cardiovascular risk factors that you may have, including hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, or smoking. You can also help reduce cardiovascular risk by maintaining a healthy weight and heart-healthy diet, exercising regularly and controlling stress.
  • How did researchers determine the risk associated with ICD implants and driving?

  • A total of 2,786 ICD patients were followed for an average of nearly 3 years following implantation. During this time, researchers tracked the occurrence of shocks from the ICD. A risk of harm formula was then used to calculate the risk for shock from the time of implantation, and therefore risk of harm while driving.

  • How can too much salt be harmful to your health?

  • While some salt is necessary to maintain the proper balance of fluids in the body, too much salt causes the kidneys to retain water, which increases blood volume and pressure and puts a strain on the heart. These effects can cause hypertension and significantly harm those with pre-existing heart problems.
  • Are there drawbacks to drinking a lot of coffee?

  • Although there is strong evidence associating coffee with heart disease, caffeine is a mild stimulant and, as such, can cause a small, temporary rise in blood pressure and heart rate. It can also trigger heartburn and upset stomach in some people. While coffee itself has few or no calories, an extra-large caramel latte is a definite diet buster. Finally, heavy caffeine use can result in the “jitters” during the day and trouble sleeping at night.
  • Can a patient with pre-diabetes prevent the onset of diabetes?

  • Yes, through lifestyle changes such as maintaining a healthy diet and increasing physical activity, individuals with pre-diabetes may be able to prevent the development of type 2 diabetes altogether. And although prevention of diabetes is not always possible through lifestyle changes, it can help delay onset of diabetes and minimize long-term damage to the heart and body.
  • Can a healthy diet reduce risk for sudden cardiac death?
  • A recent study demonstrated that a healthy diet, rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains, fish, and moderate alcohol intake can help prevent sudden cardiac death and improve overall cardiovascular health.


  • At what age are adults considered at highest risk for a heart attack?

  • Risk of heart disease and heart attack increase after age 45 for men and after age 55 (or after menopause) for women. However, other risk factors can increase cardiovascular risk despite younger age, such as family history, obesity and diabetes.
  • Besides chocolate, what other foods contain flavonoids?

  • In addition to cocoa, most fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices contain flavonoids. Flavonoids can also be found in other types of food, including beans, some grains and wine.
  • Are carbohydrates unhealthy?

  • According to research and dietary guidelines, carbohydrates are not bad for us. However, not all carbohydrates are created equal. It is important to eat complex carbohydrates contained in whole grain foods, which take longer for the body to break down and keep us feeling full. In comparison, simple carbohydrates that are found in most processed foods and sweets can spike our blood sugar and keep us less satisfied.
  • Am I at risk for pulmonary artery hypertension (PAH)?

  • If you have any of the conditions that are linked to PAH your doctor will probably want to monitor you for PAH. Harder to identify, is idiopathic pulmonary artery hypertension (IPAH), the form of the condition that occurs for no apparent reason. Generally, IPAH strikes younger people and is more common in women that in men. If you have a family member that develops IPAH, your doctor may suggest that you and other relatives get a genetic test to see if you have a mutation that causes the disease.
  • Are the health effects of smoking irreversible?

  • Absolutely not. Smokers experience many benefits by quitting, some of which begin just minutes after stopping smoking. Twenty minutes after quitting, blood pressure and heart rate will drop, and the benefits continue to improve over time. One year after quitting, risk of heart disease will be half that of a smoker; within years, risk for stroke, heart disease and other health conditions can equal that of a non-smoker.
  • Are there any differences observed in lifetime heart disease risk trends between men and women?

  • Researchers have found that having fewer risk factors earlier in life can help greatly reduce long-term cardiovascular risk until the age of 80, regardless of gender. However, the level of risk reduction varied by each outcome, such as heart attack or stroke. For example, men were more likely to have a heart attack than women, while women were more likely to have a stroke than men. However, among both men and women alike, having an optimal risk profile earlier in life greatly reduces risk of all cardiovascular outcomes in comparison with having two or more risk factors.
  • Are heart attack symptoms different for men and women?
  • Yes. Although women can experience the same heart attack symptoms as men, women are much more likely to experience atypical signs of a heart attack, which may come and go. These symptoms include pressure in the chest; pain in the arms, upper back, neck, jaw or stomach; nausea or vomiting; difficulty breathing; breaking out in a cold sweat; fatigue; clammy skin and/or an inability to sleep. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to experience more widely recognized symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath.
  • Are men no longer at significant risk for heart disease?

  • Cardiovascular disease remains the number one killer of both men and women in the United States, so it is just as important that men maintain their cardiovascular health as much as women. However, more is known about cardiovascular disease in men, which increases the ability to effectively prevent and manage heart disease in the population. Men are also more aware of their risk for heart disease than women, so they do not require the additional attention that women currently need surrounding cardiovascular disease.
  • Does replacing regular soda with diet soft drinks reduce extra sugar and calorie consumption?

  • It’s true that diet soft drinks don’t contain sugar, so switching from sugary soft drinks to diet drinks can help reduce excess sugar and calorie consumption. However, it’s still important to look at the overall quality of the diet. In this study, teens who consumed lots of sugar also consumed less protein and fiber. If teens switch to diet drinks but continue to eat the same way, they are likely to be missing out on important nutrients they need for good health. The study didn’t comment on the intake of calcium and other minerals and vitamins, but filling up on sodas, even if they’re diet sodas, may mean that a teen is not drinking enough milk or eating a balanced diet. In addition, many sodas contain caffeine, and cola drinks contain high levels of phosphates. A diet that’s high in phosphates but low in calcium can lead to weaker bones, a special concern for girls.

  • Do those getting more than the recommended 150 minutes/week achieve greater health benefits than those just meeting the guidelines?
  • Yes. Based on this study, risk for death decreases by 4% with every 15 minutes of exercise each day beyond the minimum of 15 minutes/day. And other study findings agree — the more often you exercise, the greater the health benefits.
  • Does cardiovascular risk differ among different races or ethnicities?

  • Yes. Research from 2012 shows that African-American adults have among the highest rates of hypertension in the world (44% vs. 33.5% of U.S. adults). African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Hispanic/Latino individuals and other ethnic minorities are also disproportionately affected by diabetes, and Mexican-American and African American children are disproportionately affected by overweight and obesity. 

  • Does coffee have other health benefits?

  • Another long-running study of women’s health, known as the Nurses’ Health Study, concluded that regular coffee drinkers were less likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Coffee has also been linked to a lower risk of liver disease, gallstones, colon cancer, and Parkinson’s Disease. And, as any sleep-deprived student will tell you, a cup of coffee can sharpen memory and improve the ability to perform complex tasks.
  • How are erectile dysfunction and heart disease related?
  • The causes of erectile dysfunction and heart disease are very similar. Heart disease often occurs when there is a build-up of plaque in the arteries, which decreases blood flow to the heart, brain and rest of the body. Therefore, this build-up of plaque can affect blood flow to the penis, just as it would affect blood flow to the heart, sometimes causing or worsening erectile dysfunction.
  • Can women without any history of heart disease develop cardiovascular complications during pregnancy?

  • Yes. The many changes that occur in the body during pregnancy can put extra stress on the heart, causing high blood pressure, and sometimes an irregular heartbeat, known as arrhythmia. Many of these conditions that develop during pregnancy go away in the time following delivery, although some may not.
  • Can weight loss improve my health?

  • Even a relatively modest weight loss of 5 to 10% of your body weight can produce health benefits such as lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar, and improved cholesterol levels. In addition, weight loss has been shown to help people with asthma have fewer attacks and use less medicine, and improve the quality of sleep in people with obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Can tai chi be dangerous for some patients?

  • There were no adverse events related to the practice of tai chi in a specific  study. However, patients with heart failure should consult their physician before beginning a new type of exercise, to make sure that it’s right for them.

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