Reducing Risk Factors

Everyone is at risk for heart disease, so you need to know your individual risk factors and what to do about them. While some risk factors can be treated or controlled, others such as age, biological sex, and family history of heart disease are simply beyond your control. The more risk factors you have, the greater your chance of developing heart disease. However, the more risk factors you can eliminate or reduce, the better your chances of preventing and controlling heart disease. Here’s a list of the steps you can take to start reducing your risk factors for heart disease:

  1. Take a look at the cardiovascular risk factors you can control.
  2. Understand the risk factors you cannot control.
  3. Analyze what each risk factor means.
  4. Discuss with your doctor how to measure your risk.
  5. Outline strategies with your doctor for managing your cardiovascular risk.

Part of your doctor’s plan to help reduce your cardiovascular risk may include medications to help prevent a heart attack or stroke—and you’ll need to take medications if you’ve already had a cardiovascular event. Additionally, certain lifestyle changes are central to reducing your risk factors. Before making any lifestyle changes, your doctor should assess your current health status and inform you of any precautions you should take. Your doctor can also help you decide how to change your diet or exercise plans or refer you to other health professionals (for example, a dietitian or exercise physiologist).

Nutrition and diet

If you're worried about heart disease, one of the most important things you can do today is to start eating a heart-healthy diet. A balanced diet that is low in saturated fats and trans fats and high in monounsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will protect your heart by:

  • Lowering "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and blood pressure levels
  • Limiting inflammation of the arteries
  • Warding off diabetes
  • Helping you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight

If you've already experienced a heart problem, you've probably heard about a heart-healthy diet before. But it's not enough to know what to do. You have to make changes, and that's not easy. And it may even seem overwhelming at first.

While you don't need to change everything about your diet all at once, the more you research nutrition recommendations and take them to heart, the better off your heart will be.

Above all, eating can be fun. So, learn how to adopt creative, heart-healthy eating habits for the whole family. It'll make you want to continue eating this way daily for your longer, healthier life.

Tips for heart-healthy nutrition

  • Once a day, sit at the table together to eat.
  • Once a week, modify a recipe your family loves to make it healthier. It may take more than one try, but eventually, you will tweak it just right so the whole family loves the healthy version. If you prefer not to cook, try healthier restaurant options.
  • Once a month, take turns planning a healthy theme meal based on types of cuisine or holidays such as Italian night or Mardi Gras night. Research new recipes online, make them heart-healthy if not already, and even shop together for the ingredients. Consider inviting friends and forming teams to make it a cook-off challenge to prepare the best-tasting, heart-healthiest item on the menu.

Physical activity and exercise

Making regular physical activity part of your lifestyle is one of the most effective ways to improve your heart health. Physical activity can improve heart health by reducing high blood pressure (hypertension), improving cholesterol levels, decreasing the risk of stroke, controlling weight and obesity, helping to manage type 2 diabetes, and limiting metabolic syndrome. Physical activity can result in a healthier and longer life, even for people with heart disease. By becoming more physically active, you’re embracing your chance for a fresh start and taking control of your lifestyle—and, therefore, your health!

Every single step helps. After getting your doctor’s approval to be more physically active, it’s usually best to start: By moving more consistently than before, but not more than you’re able. Over time, the more you can do, the more you will benefit.

Before getting started – a word of caution

You should always speak with your doctor before you start, change, or stop any part of your healthcare plan, including physical activity or exercise. Reading health and exercise information online may be helpful, but it can’t replace the professional diagnosis and treatment you might need from a qualified healthcare provider.

Although physical activity has many health benefits, it’s not without risks, including musculoskeletal injury; arrhythmia; heart attack; and, very rarely, sudden cardiac death. However, in most cases, the benefits of physical activity outweigh the risks. People with heart disease who exercise are overall less likely to have a heart attack than those people with heart disease who do not exercise.

Before making any changes to your physical activity routine, your doctor should assess your current health status and inform you of any precautions you should take.

Your doctor may discuss the following with you:

  • Especially if you have a history of heart disease, your doctor may recommend e a stress test before starting physical activity. A stress test monitors and records your heart’s electrical activity during exercise to determine the effects of exercise on the rate and rhythm of your heart.
  • You may have conditions preventing you from lifting or pushing heavy objects, such as lifting weights, shoveling, raking, mowing, and scrubbing. Your doctor can advise you of any limitations you have during physical activity.
  • Your doctor can also help you decide which exercises are safe and may refer you to other qualified health professionals (for example, a physical therapist or an exercise physiologist) for guidance.

Tips for getting started with physical activity

Try these basic steps to work toward getting more physical activity and exercise:

  1. Start by reducing sedentary behaviors
  2. Incorporate physical activity into your daily routine
  3. Add in structured exercise that will vary your body movements

Quitting smoking

Smoking is a primary risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD). Especially if you have coronary artery disease (CAD), better known as “heart disease,” that’s reason enough to quit. But if you need more reasons, the Surgeon General stresses that cigarettes are an addictive, deadly mix of over 7,000 chemicals that damage your arteries, lungs, reproductive system, and children’s health. Smoking also makes diabetes more difficult to manage, and it can cause sudden blood clots, heart attacks, and stroke. And don’t forget, smokeless tobacco is no better than cigarettes. They both put you at higher risk for cancer.

It may sound overwhelming, but there’s something you can do about your risk: Quit tobacco today, and you can reap the many benefits of quitting! Quitting isn’t easy. It may be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. But it may also be the most significant way to control and improve your heart health.

And if you’ve tried to quit smoking before, you know that a tool or technique that worked for someone else might not work for you. Some people do quit “cold turkey,” but most of us need a combination of strategies and support to succeed. Take it one step at a time and work with your doctor and loved ones. Together, you can succeed!

Tips for quitting smoking

Here are four steps to quitting smoking that will greatly improve your chance for success:

  1. Know and remind yourself often of why you want to quit
  2. Learn why you smoke and how you’ll manage triggers
  3. Plan your strategies and success
  4. Don’t give up; support is key

Stress management

A little stress in life is natural and good. It may help you buckle down and focus on the task at hand. But modern life is more stressful than ever. So, many of us experience ongoing periods of stress with little relief. Although it’s hard to measure stress, and people react differently to it, there’s evidence that it can add up and emotionally drain us and physically affect our heart health.

What is stress?

Stress is a psychological and physical response by your body to anything that’s perceived as a threat or a challenge. It can be caused by anything that requires you to change or respond to your environment. The things that make you feel stressed are called stressors, which may be minor inconveniences (for example, traffic or time limitations) that add up or life-changing events (for example, a serious illness). While we often think of stressors as negative changes, keep in mind that stressors may even be positive changes, such as a wedding, a new job or promotion, or a move. When you experience stress, your body acts like an alarm system. It makes hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol) that give you extra energy. This helps you get through temporary periods of stress until you can relax again.

The stress response is often called the “fight or flight” response because your body is hardwired to give you quick energy to either fight off or run away from a threat. However, when the stress hormones are continually released because you’re “stressed out,” it’s thought that they harm your health in many ways. And when you’re stressed, you’re more likely to let your healthy lifestyle behaviors slip, which can harm your heart health.

Most people experience a combination of all types of stress in their lifetime. However, a stressor that causes one person to feel stressed may not bother another because we all react differently. Studies have revealed several major stressors that are associated with an increase in heart disease risk. They include the following:

  • Job or financial strains
  • Marital strain or divorce
  • Social isolation, including the loss of a loved one and depression
  • Personality traits such as type A “perfectionist” personality, anger and hostility, and anxiety
  • A pessimistic outlook

Tips for minimizing stress

Although you cannot always control what happens to you, it’s possible to control how you react to stressors. Sometimes, people react to stress with anger, fear, anxiety, and irritability, which makes a bad situation worse. While it’s not easy, studies suggest that you also can help minimize stress by changing the way you deal with it, including the following:

  • Maintaining a positive approach to life
  • Setting realistic expectations of yourself and other people
  • Identifying any unhealthy ways you might be coping and instead choosing healthier ways to relax and manage stress

Ask Your Doctor

Being prepared for your office visit can help you talk to your doctor about reducing your risk factors for heart disease. Write down notes about your medical history to take with you if it's helpful. You may also want to write down questions you have for your doctor. The questions below can help you start your list:

  1. Does my personal and family medical history put me at greater risk for heart disease?
  2. Do I have risk factors for heart disease that I can change (e.g., smoking, diet, etc.)?
  3. Is there anything that can help me quit smoking?
  4. What level and type of exercise is appropriate for me?
  5. Is there anything I should do right now to improve my cardiovascular health?