5 Heart Disease Risk Factors You Might Not Know

Reader's Digest columnist Joel K. Kahn, MD, shares little known factors that can contribute to your heart health.

Too Little Sleep

Russ and Reyn

While you snooze, your body works hard to repair DNA, replenish vitamin levels, and generate antioxidants. When researchers recently followed 15,000 people for 14 years, they found that those with a healthy lifestyle (exercise, nutritious diet, moderate alcohol, no smoking) had a 67 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease. But if they also got seven or more hours of sleep a night, they had an 83 percent lower risk—almost heart attack proof! I advise making sleep a priority; use a cool, dark room without distractions, and have a nightly bedtime.

Too Little Happiness


Scientists asked a group of people at risk for heart disease to complete a test that measured well-being, optimism, and life satisfaction. After following the participants for 25 years, the researchers found that the happiest and most optimistic people had one third the heart disease risk of the others. In the highest-risk patients, a high well-being score reduced the risk of heart disease by half. Optimistic, happy people look forward to the future and tend to prepare with healthier lifestyles.

Too Much Air Pollution


Chemicals in polluted air may increase inflammation in the body and promote oxidation, the rusting of important organs (like your heart). Scientists in Vancouver, British Columbia, found that increases in traffic pollution and noise were linked with a 6 percent increase in heart disease–related deaths over nearly ten years. When factories in Beijing closed for two months around the 2008 Summer Olympics to improve air quality, citizens experienced better blood pressure and artery health. Steer clear of secondhand smoke, keep a distance from the exhaust of trucks and cars when outside, and avoid situations in which air quality is poor, such as grilling indoors.

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Too Many Heavy Metal Toxins


As many as three quarters of people have high blood levels of chemicals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, which may poison enzymes involved in healing. In one study, more than 1,400 heart attack survivors received a weekly infusion of a medicine that removes heavy metals (chelation therapy) or a placebo for 30 weeks. Patients in the first group, especially those with diabetes, experienced fewer heart events. While more research is needed, avoid these compounds by eating organic food, using green cleaning products, and filtering tap water. Eat a diet rich in dark green leafy veggies like kale and collard greens, which help your liver eliminate these poisons.

Too Much Stress


Chronic stress elevates cortisol and adrenaline, which makes blood sugar rise and hardens blood vessels. Look what happens when people get their stress in check: Researchers took 201 people with heart disease and either taught them about heart health or combined that info with instructions on how to meditate. After five years, the meditators had a whopping 50 percent reduction in heart attack, stroke, and death. I encourage my patients to explore slow, easy yoga classes or to borrow an instructional DVD.

Joel K. Kahn, MD, is a clinical professor of medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine and director of cardiac wellness at Michigan Healthcare Professionals.

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