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Mar 07, 2012

Lifetime Risks of Heart Disease

Reducing cardiovascular risk early in life can have significant long-term benefits.

It is well understood that a number of traditional risk factors for heart disease help predict a patient’s cardiovascular risk, both now and in the near future. These risk factors include blood pressure, cholesterol levels, smoking status, diabetes and weight. And as you might imagine, the more risk factors one has, the greater the risk for heart disease, heart attack and stroke until they those risk factors are addressed appropriately. What’s less clear, however, is how lifetime risk for heart disease is affected by risk factors that a patient might have as early as 45 years of age. Could having a few risk factors for heart disease early in life predict how a patient will fare long into the future?

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine addressed this question, analyzing data from 18 studies published in recent years. Among the studies they analyzed, encompassing a total of more than 257,000 black and white men and women, researchers looked at participants’ cardiovascular risk factors from ages 45 to 75 and certain outcomes including heart disease, heart attack, stroke and death. After analysis, they found that participants with an optimal risk profile at age 55 had significantly lower risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke and death through the age of 80 than those with two or more cardiovascular risk factors. These trends were consistent across all demographics—men and women, black and white.

By knowing who is at risk for heart disease, heart attack and stroke now and in the future, experts are better able to assess the overall impact of heart disease on the U.S. population. On an individual level, it is important that patients understand that although they may have low risk for heart disease in the near future, having as few as two risk factors earlier in life could put them at much higher risk later in life. Therefore, taking action now to improve heart health, regardless of age, could help patients live longer and remain free of heart disease for an entire lifetime.

Questions for You to Consider

  • 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.
  • 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.

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