Health / Expert Advice

6 Surprising Heart Disease Risk Factors

There are far more risk factors for the number one killer in America than you might realize.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. In fact, an estimated 610,000 Americans die each year as a result of this debilitating disease. Unfortunately, we have our Western diet and lifestyle to thank for that alarming statistic. According to Luiza Petre, a certified cardiologist and weight management specialist, the prevalence of lifestyle risk factors, obesity, and smoking all contribute to developing heart disease. “All of these factors are known to trigger inflammation, the mother of all ailments, which acts like rust slowly eroding our health,” she says. “It promotes fat plaque deposits in our arteries, which is how we age and develop heart disease.”

In essence, if we are able to curb our body’s inflammatory response, we can reduce our risk of heart disease and improve our health from all angles. Unfortunately, there are more risks factors for heart disease than a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, and smoking alone. Here are some more surprising factors that can put you at risk for this life-threatening condition.

1. A Diet High in Refined Carbs

Much of what consists of “the Western diet” falls under the category of refined carbohydrates. These include pasta, white rice, crackers, cakes, cookies, bagels, donuts, pizza dough. All of them happen to be key triggers for inflammation. “Fifty years ago, fat was considered the main culprit for heart disease. But we now recognize that healthy fats are actually protective. Small amounts of saturated fats from meat products are not as bad as we initially thought,” explains Dr. Petre. “Reducing fats in our diets leads to increased carbohydrate consumption, which unfortunately gave rise to the obesity and heart disease epidemic of the last 30 years.”

2. Lack of Exercise

Of course, we know that a sedentary lifestyle is one of the biggest culprits leading to heart disease. But, unfortunately, it’s not as simple as walking a little here and there. While that surely helps, it’s increased endurance that’s achieved through sweaty, heart rate-increasing activity that helps reduce one’s risk of heart disease. Even if you lift weights regularly, Dr. Petre suggests adding in some kind of heart-raising activity to score the long-term heart benefits.

3. A Poor Gut

More and more, doctors now recognize that inflammation also starts in the gut. “This is the main barrier for blocking all invaders from reaching our bloodstream,” says Dr. Petre. “If the lining of our gut is impaired, we develop leaky gut syndrome, causing harmful particles from our food to pass through.” There is also evidence that intestinal bacteria profile is linked to increased inflammation and heart disease. “Ideally, in the near future, a pill containing healthy bacteria to curb inflammation would become available, preventing heart disease, and helping us live longer. But, for now, we should monitor these factors closely to ensure long, healthy lives,” she adds.

4. Stress

Stress, time-urgency, frustration, and anger are all risk factors for heart disease on a chronic basis, according to Robert Greenfield, M.D., cardiologist, lipidologist, and medical director of Non-Invasive Cardiology & Cardiac Rehabilitation at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “All of these emotions raise both adrenaline and cortisone, hormones that in large quantities have detrimental effects on the heart and blood vessels by disrupting the smooth lining of the blood vessels called the endothelium,” he warns.

5. Lack of Sleep

We all know to get around seven to nine hours a night. But, let’s be honest, it’s not always possible. This is especially true when you’re living a busy lifestyle or perhaps have a newborn on your hands. It’s true, however, that sleeping five hours or less can increase the incidence of heart attacks and stroke. Also, as Dr. Greenfield points out, if the body cannot replenish and restore for seven hours a night, it is deprived of necessary downtime to recuperate from the previous day.

6. Diabetes

Approximately 21 million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with diabetes. Meanwhile, millions more are likely living with the disease, yet don’t know it. Diabetes can lead to a slew of health problems, one of those being heart disease. In fact, according to Waqar Khan, M.D., a cardiologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, approximately 70 to 80 percent of all people with heart disease have been diagnosed with diabetes or abnormal glucose tolerance. In addition, people with diabetes are two to eight times more likely to develop CHD than people without the condition. “Diabetes accelerates the natural progression of atherosclerosis. This is why it is considered one of the strongest risk factors for CHD and heart attack,” he says.

The risk factors for heart disease are many. But education and understanding about the disease and its possible causes can help you adjust your lifestyle to be in a better position to stay healthy.

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