The Heart Risk Factor

The bad news is that heart disease is the largest killer of people in the U.S. The good news is that it has become one of the most carefully studied health problems. More is known about the causes and prevention of heart attacks than most other diseases that kill us. That is truly good news, since what has been learned allows us to assess the risks brought about by our lifestyle and to know what we can do to reduce these risks of dying of heart disease.

Risk factors are odds, something like the chances of winning at a casino. Occasionally someone beats the odds and comes home with a bundle, some others lose every time, but for almost everyone else the odds continue much as predicted.

There are some risk factors you're stuck with. You can't change the genes your parents gave you. Your family's tendency toward heart disease is evaluated from the men who had a heart attack before age 55 and women before 65. These are considered premature heart attacks, and may reflect a genetically linked risk. The genes that established your gender, skin color and other physical factors can affect your risk factor. Males have a higher risk than females before age 55, and maintain a ten year disadvantage compared to women until 75 or 80, when the risk equalizes. Black Americans have more high blood pressure and diabetes than other ethnic groups, putting them at higher heart disease risk. Although not yet confirmed, some other genetic factors are suspected of carrying an increased risk of heart disease: those who are shorter than average, women under 5 feet and men under 5 feet 6 inches; men with a bald spot at the top of their head or receding hairline; and people with a crease across the earlobe. While there's nothing you can do about changing these traits, you should keep in mind that if any of these apply to you, the things you can do are even more important for you to consider.

The good news continues. The most effective ways to reduce the risk factor are things you can do something about:

Smoking: Of the 500,000 deaths from coronary artery disease each year, between 20 and 40 percent, 100,000 to 200,000, are directly related to smoking tobacco. Quitting smoking cuts the chance of a heart attack by half. But cutting down to fewer cigarettes a day or changing to low- tar low-nicotine products doesn't do much to reduce the odds. The benefits of quitting start immediately and between five and ten years after quitting the risk is reduced to the same as for people who never smoked.

Fats: Reducing the amount of fats in what you eat helps clear clogged arteries and helps control cholesterol. The target is to limit fats to no more than 10% of the calories eaten. Fats are essential to maintain good health, but Americans typically eat four times more than they need. A balanced diet of vegetables, legumes (beans and lentils), whole grains and fruits will supply all the fats a body requires. Reading labels and avoiding high fat foods is an insurance policy for health and longevity.

Cholesterol: Keeping fats down, especially saturated fats, is one part of reducing cholesterol. Many foods are high in cholesterol. Reducing the intake of cholesterol containing foods is crucial. Eggs, meats (including poultry and fish), and dairy products are the main sources of cholesterol. Avoiding them will help reduce the blood cholesterol level. Eating high fiber foods and regular aerobic exercise are also helpful in reducing cholesterol.

When cholesterol is over 200 mg/dl, for each point that cholesterol is lowered, the risk of a heart attack is reduced by 2 percent. For maximum protection against a heart attack, reduce your serum cholesterol level to 150 mg/dl or less. Following the recommendations of Healing Heart support groups, the same recommendations as in this book, has helped many people bring their cholesterol levels down from over 300 to below 150 in less than three months.

Blood Pressure: Hypertension is a major contributor to the risk of heart attack and stroke. Every time the diastolic level (the lower number) is reduced one point, the risk of a heart attack is lowered 2 to 3 percent. Reducing fat, animal protein, alcohol, and in some cases sodium, as well as taking off excess weight, are some of the ways to reduce blood pressure.

Exercise: The couch potato (someone who gets almost no exercise) is one vegetable that may be harmful to your health. A sedentary lifestyle is favored by more than 60% of all Americans, yet it is now known that regular aerobic exercise reduces the risk of heart attack from by 35 to 55 percent, even only a short time after the exercise is started. Less strenuous daily activities, like gardening or a walk after dinner, can be beneficial. Regular exercise reduces heart disease risk, lowers blood pressure, helps control weight, can boost good HDL cholesterol levels, makes the body's use of insulin more efficient, reduces blood clot formation and makes it easier to control stress. Aerobic exercise, combined with some weight training, can help keep the body in the best condition to resist disease, prevent osteoporosis and the effects of aging.

Weight: More than one out of every three Americans are overweight or obese. They have double the risk of coronary artery disease, and also an increased risk of hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol. There's also a relationship between what part of the body the fat is on and the risk for heart disease. Waist-heavy people have a higher heart risk than those who accumulate fat around the hips. Regardless of where the fat is, the more overweight a person is, the higher the risk for heart disease.

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is a newer method of determining a safe weight, based on a formula that applies equally to men and women and any body type. To check your BMI, click here.

Diabetes: Over 12 million Americans suffer from adult-onset, non-insulin dependent diabetes. Men with this condition have two or three times the risk of heart disease, but women increase their heart disease risk from three to seven times. Following the recommendations for preventing and reversing heart disease can also help the body use blood sugars more efficiently, slowing the onset and reducing the severity of diabetes. Many diabetics have been able to reduce and even eliminate the need to inject insulin in just a few weeks. (If you are diabetic and begin this program, be sure to test yourself at least three times a day at the beginning, as demand for insulin drops immediately.)

Next: Atherosclerosis

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©1994, 1996, 2002
Dr. Neal Pinckney
Healing Heart Foundation