More than 85 million Americans suffer from some form of cardiovascular disease — heart disease and stroke — and it remains the leading cause of U.S. deaths, claiming about 800,000 lives annually.
Many of these deaths are preventable, says UCI Health interventional cardiologist Dr. Ailin Barseghian, if people would adopt healthier habits and avoid risky behaviors.
“The reality is that most of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease can be managed,” says Barseghian, who practices at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange and at the UCI Health Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute.
“At least half of all Americans have at least one of these three risk factors: high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol or smoking.”
Changing lifestyle can reduce risk
While little can be done about the risk factors of age, gender and family history, research is beginning on gene modification to prevent cardiovascular disease. But high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, being overweight, having diabetes, a poor diet, drinking alcohol and stress are all risk factors you can control with lifestyle changes — and your healthcare provider’s help.
The beauty of tackling these risk factors, moreover, is that they’re interrelated. Attack one and you begin to control them all, Barseghian says.
But the longer you wait, the more your risk for heart disease multiplies.
Assessing the risks of cardiovascular disease
Here’s what you need to know about the risks and how to deal with them, says Barseghian:
High blood pressure
As the primary risk factor for heart disease, high blood pressure is compounded by:
It can be controlled through medication but working on those lifestyle choices is even more beneficial.
The buildup of fats — cholesterol and other substances in and on the walls of your arteries — causes atherosclerosis and restricts blood flow to your heart and other vital organs.
High levels of cholesterol have even been seen in boys and girls as young as age 8. All men and women age 35 and older should be screened for cholesterol levels at least every five years, and sooner for people at elevated risk for heart disease. Like high blood pressure, cholesterol levels can be managed with diet, exercise and medication.
A 50-year study of physicians who smoked found that those who had quit before age 30 showed no lasting risk factors for heart disease. But those who were still smoking at age 50 had lifespans that were 6 years shorter.
Americans sit an average of 6 to 8 hours a day. Evidence is accumulating that sedentary behavior is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Studies reveal that people who exercise moderately are less likely to have a heart attack or stroke. Recent research suggests that being active throughout the day has a more positive effect than working out at the gym after sitting all day.
Being overweight or obese is a contributor to cardiovascular disease, and carrying excessive belly fat is a particularly menacing problem. A loss of 10 percent of body weight can bring considerable health benefits, but even a three-percent to five-percent weight reduction has been shown to result in clinically significant improvements.
Being at risk of developing type 2 diabetes is also a big risk factor for heart disease. But it is possible to reverse the disease process by at least six months of diet and exercise.
Diets high in processed foods have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease. These include:
- Deep-fried dishes
- High-cholesterol red meats
- High-fat dairy products
- Sugary drinks
Switching to a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fish, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, extra virgin olive oil, fruit and nuts can reduces cardiovascular risk factors as much as some medications.
Alcohol in moderation can actually be good for your heart — one drink per day for women, two for men. More than that, though, and you’re likely to shorten your life by at least a year or two.
Stress causes the body to release cortisol and adrenaline, which in turn elevates blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
It also may also cause you to smoke more, drink more, overeat and be less physically active. Studies have shown stress to be associated with cardiovascular events in such situations as a major earthquake, watching a soccer match or within 24 hours of the death of a loved one.
It is possible to learn to control stress with yoga, tai chi, meditation or deep breathing.