Heart Disease: Am I at Risk?

Red paper heart on the ground surrounded by a stethoscope

It's February - American Heart Month - a time when the nation spotlights heart disease, the number one killer of Americans.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, among the millions of people in the country who'd had heart attacks, issued the first proclamation in 1964. Since then, U.S. presidents have annually declared February American Heart Month.

This year, American Heart Month is even more important due to the impact of COVID-19 on the public's heart health, including potential harmful effects on the heart and vascular system, according to recent research. Another issue associated with the pandemic that can affect heart health is the fact that many of us have delayed or avoided going to hospitals for heart attacks and strokes. And while in lockdown, more people have engaged in unhealthy lifestyle behaviors, such as eating poorly, drinking more alcohol and limiting physical activity — all of which can contribute to heart disease.

Aside from the effects of the pandemic, heart disease continues to be the greatest health threat to Americans and is still the leading cause of death worldwide. According to a recent report, nearly 19 million people across the globe died of cardiovascular disease in 2019 — a 17% increase over the past decade. And 523 million cases of cardiovascular disease were reported in 2019, which is a 26.6% increase over 2010.

During American Heart Month, we will be reinforcing the importance of heart health, the need for more research and efforts to ensure that millions of people live longer and healthier. The good news is that we can do a lot to protect our heart and stay healthy.

Heart-healthy living involves understanding our individual risk, making good choices, and taking steps to reduce our chances of getting heart disease, Coronary and other types of heart disease are very serious and often are the cause of heart attacks. By taking preventive measures, we can lower the risk of developing heart disease and also improve our overall health and well-being.

What Are My Risks?

The first step toward heart health is understanding your risk of heart disease. Your risk depends on many factors, some of which are changeable and others that are not. Risk factors are conditions or habits that make a person more likely to develop a disease. These risk factors may be different for each person.

Preventing heart disease starts with knowing what your risks factors are and what you can do to lower them. Your risk of heart disease is higher if you:

  • Have high blood pressure
  • Have high blood cholesterol
  • Are overweight or obese
  • Have prediabetes or diabetes
  • Smoke
  • Do not get regular physical activity
  • Have a family history of early heart disease (your father or brother was diagnosed before age 55, or your mother or sister was diagnosed before age 65)
  • Have a history of preeclampsia (a sudden rise in blood pressure and too much protein in the urine during pregnancy)
  • Have unhealthy eating behaviors
  • Are older (age 55 or older for women or age 45 or older for men)

Each risk factor increases a person's chance of developing heart disease. The more risks we have, the higher our overall risk.

Some risk factors cannot be changed. These include age, sex, and a family history of early heart disease. But many others can be modified. For example, being more physically active and eating healthy are important steps for heart health. These changes can all be made gradually, even one at a time. But making them is very important.

Women generally get heart disease about 10 years later than men do, but it's still women's #1 killer. Women are more likely to get heart disease after menopause, in part because estrogen hormone levels drop. Women who have gone through early menopause, either naturally or because they have had a hysterectomy, are twice as likely to develop heart disease as women of the same age who have not gone through menopause. Middle age is also a time when women tend to develop other risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure.

Preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy) raises the risk of developing coronary heart disease later in life. It is a risk factor that can't be controlled. However, if you've had the condition, you should take extra care to monitor your blood pressure and try to lower other heart disease risk factors.

If one or more of these factors apply to you, it may be time to ask your doctor about testing for heart disease risk. Summit Medical Group can measure your risk in minutes with a Cardiac Calcium Screen. The exam helps predict heart disease risk at an early stage, before symptoms occur, and for up to 10 years after the scan. Cardiac Calcium Scoring uses high resolution, rapid CT to take multiple angle X-rays, creating 2-dimensional images of the beating heart. It determines the amount of atherosclerosis, or plaque build-up, in the coronary arteries, which is directly related to your risk for a future heart attack. Over time, plaque can cause hardening and narrowing of the arteries, decreasing blood flow to the heart. Summit physicians analyze the CT to provide a calcium score for the risk of cardiac artery blockage. Your physician will receive your report and can devise a comprehensive plan to minimize risk and maximize heart health.

Next week we will focus on several steps we can take to help alleviate come of the controllable factors that may lead to an increased risk of heart disease.