5 Heart Disease Risk Factors You Can Change

More than anything else, how you live your life determines your likelihood of developing coronary heart disease (CHD).

Even if you have risk factors you can’t do a thing about, making changes to your lifestyle can go a long way toward ensuring you don’t ever suffer a heart attack or other so-called coronary event.

1. Smoking
Smoking accounts for about one in five deaths from cardiovascular disease. Women who smoke are two to six times more likely to suffer a heart attack than those who don’t. The risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked each day. But if you quit, within one year your CHD risk plummets 50 percent; within 15 years your relative risk of dying from CHD approaches that of a lifetime nonsmoker.

About 70 percent of smokers say they want to quit. If you’re one of them, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking strategies. In addition to providing the kind moral and medical support you’ll need, your doctor can prescribe medications shown to help smokers break the habit.

How does smoking affect your heart disease risk? It lowers beneficial HDL (high-density lipoprotein) and damages the blood vessels, making them less elastic (thereby reducing blood flow and causing high blood pressure) and turning them into virtual Velcro, so that gunk (like fatty deposits) is more likely to stick to them. Smoking also reduces oxygen levels in the blood, which further irritates vessel walls.

Smoking may also contribute to insulin resistance and the cascade of events that leads to metabolic syndrome. When researchers at Stanford University had 20 smokers and 20 nonsmokers drink a sweet solution, they found that while glucose levels of both remained about the same, the smokers had much higher levels of insulin, a sign of insulin resistance. Also, while total cholesterol levels were the same in both groups, VLDL (very low-density lipoprotein) was higher and HDL lower in smokers.

Unless your cholesterol is off the charts, quitting smoking may be even more important than fixing the cholesterol problem. Research has shown that male smokers with low cholesterol have a substantially higher risk of death than nonsmokers with high cholesterol. Of course, doing both is best.

2. Lack of Exercise
Could our lives be any easier? We have clickers to change the channel, increase the stereo volume, even turn lights on and off. We can drive through for hamburgers, dry cleaning, and doughnuts. We can hire someone to clean the house, cut the grass, and walk the dog. Is it any wonder that one in four Americans are not physically active at all? Or that more than 6 in 10 don’t get enough exercise to do any good for their health?

While lack of exercise is bad for the whole body (and the mind), it’s particularly bad for the heart. If you’re sedentary, you’re almost twice as likely to suffer a heart attack as someone who exercises regularly. Exercise increases HDL, reduces LDL (low-density lipoprotein), improves insulin sensitivity, and lowers blood pressure. It also helps to control your weight and keep your heart in shape. If you do have high cholesterol or other CHD risk factors, exercise can help nullify some of those risks by creating healthier, stronger blood vessels — in some instances, even new blood vessels for blood to flow through.

If you’re living the couch potato life, your body is storing calories as fat instead of burning them, which leads to high triglycerides and LDL. In fact, lack of exercise is so dangerous for your heart that some experts think a history of no regular physical activity should count as a risk factor for heart disease — one just as dangerous as high LDL.

You don’t have to do much to make a difference; just 20 minutes of brisk walking per day will help your body burn calories instead of storing them as fat.

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