While family history and genetics can cause certain types of heart disease, there are six major risk factors for heart disease that are both preventable and controllable. Making efforts to manage these factors can reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke by more than 80 percent.
1. High blood pressure
The normal level of blood pressure is 120/80 – this means a systolic pressure of 120 and a diastolic pressure of 80. If your blood pressure is 140/90 or higher, you are at risk of hypertension and should visit your GP as soon as possible.
In everyday life, blood pressure is largely determined by diet and lifestyle. Salt is strongly associated with high blood pressure, as are chronic alcohol consumption and potassium, calcium or magnesium deficiency. Stress may also raise your risk of high blood pressure. High blood pressure is also associated with other risk factors for heart disease including obesity, physical inactivity, smoking and diabetes. Specifically, carrying too much weight around your waist can increase your risk.
Your risk of hypertension increases with age and may also be influenced by genetics and family history or medical conditions such as thyroid disorders or sleep apnoea. However, practicing prevention at any stage of your life can help not only manage your blood pressure, but lower your risk of heart disease overall.
Regular exercise, a healthy diet and stress management are the foundations of a healthy lifestyle that will allow you to maintain a healthy weight and manage your risk of high blood pressure.
If you have high blood pressure, ask your GP to check your blood pressure regularly.
2. Alcohol consumption
If you drink, do not exceed the maximum recommended limits.
Alcohol Action Ireland have outlined the recommended low risk limits for alcohol consumption:
For men: 17 standard drinks, spread out over the course of a week, with at least two to three alcohol-free days.
For women: 11 standard drinks, spread out over the course of a week, with at least two to three alcohol-free days.
Avoid binge drinking, as this increases the risk of a heart attack. Binge drinking is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO), as six or more standard drinks in one session, which is the equivalent of three or more pints of beer or six or more pub measures of spirits.
3. High cholesterol
When people talk about cholesterol, they are most likely referring to low-density lipo-protein (LDL) cholesterol, or ‘bad cholesterol.’
LDL cholesterol contributes to the build-up of plaque that can clog arteries. If a clot forms and blocks the arteries, it can cause a heart attack or stroke. Nutrition labels that show saturated fat and trans-fat can increase the body’s production of bad cholesterol.
Saturated fat is found in animal products like beef, lamb, butter and dairy as well as certain plants such as coconut, tropical oils and cocoa butter. Trans fat is common in fried foods and baked goods like pastries, pizza dough, cookies and crackers.
Family history can also play a role, meaning you may be at risk regardless of your weight, fitness, diet or lifestyle. Seeing your GP or getting your cholesterol tested in selected CarePlus Pharmacies is the only way to manage your cholesterol.
A diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts, limiting red meat and sugary foods and drinks as well as regular physical exercise, such as 40 minutes of aerobic exercise three to four times a week, can lower your cholesterol as well.
Check out our cholesterol article for more information.
Total smoking cessation is recommended.
Any amount of cigarette smoking raises your health risks. Smoking can cause fat build-up in the arteries, increasing blood pressure and the tendency for blood to clot. Smoking impacts your ability to live a healthy lifestyle by diminishing your capacity to exercise, which in turn affects your blood pressure, cholesterol and weight.
If you smoke, giving up will reduce your risk of developing coronary heart disease. Smoking is a major risk factor for developing atherosclerosis (furring of the arteries). It also causes the majority of cases of coronary thrombosis in people under the age of 50.
Ask your CarePlus Pharmacist for advice on quitting smoking.
5. Physical inactivity
Studies show that two and half hours of moderate physical activity or one hour of vigorous physical activity each week can reduce your risk of heart disease by 30 percent.
Regular exercise will make your heart and blood circulatory system more efficient, lower your cholesterol level and keep your blood pressure at a healthy level.
People who do not exercise are twice as likely to have a heart attack than those who exercise regularly. The heart is a muscle and, like any other muscle, benefits from exercise. A strong heart can pump more blood around your body with less effort.
Any aerobic exercise, such as walking, swimming and dancing, makes your heart work harder and keeps it healthy.
6. Obesity & diabetes
A healthy body mass index (BMI) is between 18.5 and 24.9; a BMI of over 30 is considered obese.
Maintaining a healthy weight is essential to heart health and being overweight or obese can increase your blood pressure, cholesterol and risk of developing diabetes, all of which increase your risk of heart disease.
A healthy weight – measured as between 18.5 and 24.9 BMI – can help your heart more efficiently circulate blood. Losing weight around your waistline specifically can also improve your blood pressure. Work with your physician to ensure you’re at a healthy weight or develop a plan to help you get there.
Selected CarePlus Pharmacies can tell you what your ideal weight is in relation to your height and build as well as your body mass index (BMI).
Healthy habits will also help you minimize the impact of diabetes.
If you have diabetes, it’s even more important that you practice a healthy lifestyle to minimize your other risks of heart disease. At least 68% of people over the age of 65 with diabetes die from heart disease and adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have heart disease or stroke than those without.
Diabetes is treatable, making it one of the most controllable risk factors for heart disease, yet people with diabetes often also have high blood pressure or abnormal cholesterol and can struggle with obesity and lack of physical activity.
You have a greater risk of developing CHD if you are diabetic. If you have diabetes, being physically active and controlling your weight and blood pressure will help manage your blood sugar level.
If you are diabetic, your target blood pressure level should be below 130/80mmHg.
Speak to your friendly local CarePlus Pharmacist if you are worried about your risk of heart disease.
*Information adapted from Northwestern Medicine and the HSE website