Cardiovascular disease risk factors
What are cardiovascular disease risk factors?
Risk factors for cardiovascular disease are particular habits, behaviors or conditions that make an individual more likely to develop cardiovascular disease.
Cardiovascular disease is a broad term used to describe all conditions affecting the heart and circulatory system, including coronary heart disease, stroke, heart attack and aortic disease. Possessing one or more risk factors increases a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease; it does not, however, mean that cardiovascular disease is an inevitability.
Cardiovascular disease risk factors can be split into two categories: modifiable and non-modifiable. Modifiable risk factors are those that can be changed, whereas non-modifiable factors are those that cannot. Smoking, for example, is a modifiable factor, as an individual is free to quit smoking. Family history, however, is not, because genetics cannot be changed.
Cardiovascular disease risk factors
Cardiovascular disease risk factors can be classified as modifiable or non-modifiable. Non-modifiable cardiovascular disease risk factors are those that cannot be changed. These include a person’s age, ethnicity and family history, among other factors. Modifiable cardiovascular disease risk factors are those that can be reduced with altered behavior. By making certain lifestyle changes, at-risk individuals are able to lower their chances of developing cardiovascular disease. Examples include smoking, diet and exercise.
There is a genetic element to cardiovascular disease, meaning a family history of the condition is considered to be a risk factor. Generally, this applies if a person’s father or brother developed cardiovascular disease before the age of 55, or their mother or sister developed it before the age of 65. A family history of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes can also increase one’s chances of developing these conditions, which can in turn cause cardiovascular disease.
Having a family history of cardiovascular disease does not mean the condition is inevitable, but does make it more likely. Leading a healthy lifestyle is generally recommended to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in those with a genetic predisposition to the condition.
Older people are at greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Although the process of aging cannot be helped, leading a generally healthy lifestyle is recommended to help reduce the chance of developing the condition.
Statistics show that people of South Asian, African or Caribbean descent have a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Type 2 diabetes – a risk factor in itself for cardiovascular disease – is also more prevalent among these demographics. The reasons for this are difficult to define, but leading a healthy lifestyle is recommended as a way to help prevent the condition from developing.
Despite the common misconception that men are more at risk of cardiovascular disease than women, the opposite is actually true. Due to a variety of factors – including incidences of diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol – women are at greater risk of cardiovascular disease; however, they generally develop the condition at an older age than men. This later age of onset is thought to be linked to the hormonal changes that follow menopause.
People from a low socioeconomic background are at a greater risk of cardiovascular disease. Although the reasons behind this are multiple and their relationships complex, diet is generally considered to be one of the biggest factors in this, with those from a higher socioeconomic background typically having greater access to a more nutritionally-balanced diet.
High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – also known as bad cholesterol – are linked to a range of cardiovascular diseases. Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is carried around the body by proteins. If too much LDL is present, it can cause fatty substances to build up in the artery walls and lead to complications.
High levels of LDL are often caused by factors such as an unhealthy diet, smoking, physical inactivity, high alcohol intake and liver and kidney disease. To reduce LDL levels, individuals should eat a balanced diet, undertake regular exercise and quit smoking. Those with extremely high levels of LDL cholesterol may be prescribed medication, most often statins.
Blood pressure (hypertension)
High blood pressure (or hypertension) is another contributing factor to cardiovascular disease, including heart failure, stroke and heart attack. High blood pressure is often symptomless, but can be easily diagnosed by a doctor, using a routine test.
High blood pressure is often linked to being overweight, physical inactivity, a high intake of salt or alcohol or a family history of the disorder, but in some cases may have no apparent cause. Lifestyle changes may help to reduce high blood pressure and, in severe cases, medication may be prescribed.
Having diabetes, a condition that causes high levels of glucose in the blood, is a risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease. High glucose levels can damage the artery walls and make the buildup of fatty deposits (atheroma) more likely. If these fatty deposits occur in the coronary arteries, they can lead to possible coronary heart disease and heart attack.
There are two types of diabetes: type 1, which involves the body being unable to produce insulin and which usually develops in children and young adults, and type 2, which is more likely to affect older people, though is becoming more common in younger people, and which involves the body either not making enough insulin or the body becoming resistant to insulin. Type 2 diabetes is closely associated with being overweight and physical inactivity.
Eating a balanced diet, taking regular exercise and leading a generally healthy lifestyle can both help manage diabetes in those who already have the condition and help prevent the onset of the condition in those that don’t.
Smoking tobacco significantly increases the chance of developing cardiovascular disease. Smoking damages and narrows the arteries, making angina pectoris, a condition characterized by pain or discomfort in the center of the chest, caused by the heart muscle not getting enough blood, and heart attack more likely. Nicotine also makes the heart beat faster and increases blood pressure, meaning the heart has to work harder to pump blood around the body.
Soon after quitting smoking, health benefits such as improved circulation, better taste and smell and a stronger immune system can usually be noticed. Doctors and other health professionals are able to offer advice on how to quit smoking.
Physical inactivity is an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Not exercising regularly increases a person’s chances of being overweight, of having high blood pressure and of developing other conditions that make cardiovascular disease more likely.
To see substantial health benefits, the U.S. Department of Health recommends that adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate to high-intensity exercise per week. If this is not possible, any amount of physical activity is always preferable to none at all.
Being overweight (obesity)
Being overweight, or obesity, is another leading risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Eating an unhealthy diet and being physically inactive are both contributing factors to being overweight, which is generally defined as having a body mass index (BMI) outside the normal range.
Taking steps to lose weight through lifestyle and dietary changes can help reduce the risk of a range of cardiovascular conditions, including coronary heart disease and congestive heart failure.
Eating an unhealthy diet is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease. To reduce the risk, a balanced diet made up of plenty of fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates and protein should be aimed at and excess fats, salts and sugars avoided.
Alcohol should also be consumed in moderation, if at all. In many countries, this is defined as a maximum of 14 units of alcohol per week, with some experts recommending half that for women. The week should include several alcohol-free days. One unit is equal to approximately one small glass of beer or wine, or one “shot” of distilled spirits or liquor, e.g. whisky, gin.
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NCBI. “Physical inactivity as a risk factor for coronary heart disease: a WHO and International Society and Federation of Cardiology position statement.” 1994. Accessed September 25, 2017. ↩
Australian Government National Health and Medical Research Council. “Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol.” August 8, 2017. Accessed February 19, 2017. ↩