Extensive research has identified several factors that increase the risk of heart disease, heart attack and other vascular conditions. Major risk factors are those that research has shown significantly increase the risk of heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) disease. There are other risk factors that are associated with increased risk of heart and other vascular disease. Although their significance hasnt been decided they must not be ignored. The more risk factors a person has the greater the risk.

Some risk factors cant be changed, some can and some can be controlled. The more risk factors you have, the greater your chance of developing heart disease. Also, the greater the level of each risk factor, the greater the risk. For example, a person with a total cholesterol of 6 mmol has a greater risk than someone with a total cholesterol of 4.5 mmol.


What are the major risk factors that cant be changed?

Increasing Age: Over 83 percent of people who die of coronary heart disease are 65 or older.

Being Male: Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women do, and they have attacks earlier in life. Even after menopause, when womens death rate from heart disease increases, its not as great as mens.

Heredity (including Race): Children of parents with heart disease are more likely to develop it themselves. Heart disease risk is higher in the ethnic population. This is partly due to higher rates of hypertension, obesity and diabetes.


What risk factors can you change or control?

Smoke: Smokers risk of developing heart disease is 24 times that of non smokers. Cigarette smoking is a powerful independent risk factor for sudden cardiac death in patients with heart disease; smokers have about twice the risk of non smokers. Cigarette smoking also acts with other risk factors to greatly increase the risk for coronary heart disease. People who smoke cigars or pipes seem to have a higher risk of death from heart disease (and possibly stroke) but their risk isnt as great as cigarette smokers. Exposure to other peoples smoke increases the risk of heart disease even for non smokers.

High blood cholesterol: As blood cholesterol rises, so does risk of heart disease. When other risk factors (such as high blood pressure and smoke) are present, this risk increases even more. A persons cholesterol level is also affected by age, sex, family history and diet.

High blood pressure: High blood pressure increases the hearts workload, causing the heart to thicken and become stiffer. It also increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, kidney failure and heart failure. Again when high blood pressure is a risk factor alongside obesity, smoking, high cholesterol levels or diabetes, the risk of heart attack or stroke increases several times.

Physical inactivity: An inactive lifestyle is a risk factor for heart disease. Regular, moderate physical activity helps heart disease developing. Moderate levels of physical activity can help prevent disease if done regularly and long term. Physical activity can help control blood cholesterol, diabetes and obesity, as well as help lower blood pressure in some people.

Obesity and overweight: People who have excess body fat (especially if a lot of it is at the waist) are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke even if they have no other risk factors. Excess weight increases the hearts work. It also raises blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels, and lowers HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Being overweight can increase the risk of diabetes. Many obese and overweight people may have difficulty losing weight. But by losing even as few as 10pounds, you can lower your heart disease risk.

Diabetes mellitus: Diabetes seriously increases your risk of developing heart or other vascular disease. Even when glucose (blood sugar) levels are under control, diabetes increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, but the risks are even greater if blood sugar is not well controlled. About three-quarters of people with diabetes die of some form of heart or blood vessel disease.


What other factors contribute to heart disease risk?

Stress: An individuals response to stress may be a contributing factor. Some scientists have noted a relationship between heart disease risk and stress in a persons life. These factors may affect established risk factors. For example, people under stress may overeat, start smoking or smoke more than they otherwise would.

Alcohol: Too much alcohol can raise blood pressure, cause heart failure and lead to stroke. It can contribute to high fat levels in the blood. It can also contribute to cancer and other diseases, and increase the risk of irregular heart rhythm and even sudden death from enlarged heart and irregular heart rhythm. It contributes to obesity, alcoholism, suicide and accidents.

Sensible amounts of alcohol can be beneficial to the heart. People who drink moderate amounts of alcohol have been shown to have a lower risk of developing heart disease than non drinkers. However it is not recommended that a person starts drinking if they are tee total or that drinkers increase their intake.

See attached a risk factor assessment sheet for you to complete. For people with 2 or more risk factors (without existing vascular disease), it is recommended that they have a fasting cholesterol profile and a risk assessment done to assess their risk of developing cardiovascular disease.


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