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Medical Self Advocacy

Heart Disease, Family History and Risks

If you have a family history of heart health issues and smoke, you will need to adapt your lifestyle. You should learn what risks factors your family member had, what risks you may face and what you can do to help prevent heart disease. Knowing your family history of heart disease is very important; it is a risk factor that cannot be controlled. However, obesity is a risk factor that can be managed. Learn what you can do about your family history and work with your health care provider to identify a plan for addressing any manageable risk factors.

Major risk factors that cannot be changed include:

Increasing age: About 82 percent of people who die of heart disease are age 65 or older. At older ages, women who have heart attacks are more likely than men to die from them within a few weeks.

Gender: Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women, and they have attacks earlier in life. Even after menopause, when women's death rates from heart disease increases, it's not as great as men's.

Heredity (including race): Those with a family history of heart disease are more likely to develop it themselves. African Americans can have more severe high blood pressure and a higher risk of heart disease. Heart disease risk is also higher among Latinos, American Indians, Pacific Islanders, Alaska Natives and some Asian Americans. This is partly due to higher rates of obesity and diabetes in these populations.

Age, sex, race and family history can't be controlled. Therefore, it's even more important to treat and control any other risk factors that may be present.

History of trauma: The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study, which looks at long-term health and wellness of children who live with psychological trauma, found that traumatic experiences are substantial risk factors for several chronic conditions including heart disease and tobacco use.

Major risk factors that can be changed include:

Use of tobacco: Smokers' risk of developing heart disease is two to four times that of nonsmokers. Cigarette smoking also acts with other risk factors to greatly increase the risk for heart disease. People who smoke cigars or pipes seem to have a higher risk of death from coronary heart disease (and possibly stroke) but their risk isn't as great as cigarette smokers'. Exposure to other people's smoke increases the risk of heart disease even for nonsmokers.

Obesity and weight: People who have excess body fat, especially around the waist, are more likely to develop heart disease even if they have no other risk factors. Excess weight increases the heart's work, thereby, potentially raising blood pressure, blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Being overweight may also lowers HDL (good) cholesterol levels. It can also make diabetes more likely to develop. Many obese and overweight people may feel overwhelmed and have difficulty losing weight. But by losing even as few as 10 pounds, individuals can lower their heart disease risk.

Diabetes mellitus: Diabetes seriously increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Even when glucose levels are under control diabetes increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, but the risks are even greater if blood sugar is not controlled. At least 65 percent of people with diabetes die of some form of heart or blood vessel disease. If an individual has diabetes, it's extremely important for them to work with their health care provider to manage it and control any other risk factors. Persons who are obese or overweight should lose weight to manage blood sugar.

High blood cholesterol: As blood cholesterol rises, so does risk of coronary heart disease. When other risk factors (such as high blood pressure and tobacco smoke) are present, this risk increases even more. A person's cholesterol level is also affected by age, sex, heredity and diet. Learn more about cholesterol by exploring the NAMI Hearts & Minds Web site further. (Link to Cholesterol section)

High blood pressure: High blood pressure increases the heart's workload, causing the heart to thicken and become stiffer. This abnormal stiffening of the heart muscle causes heart dysfunction. When high blood pressure exists with other risk factors such as obesity, smoking, high blood cholesterol levels or diabetes, the risk of heart attack increases significantly.

Physical inactivity: An inactive lifestyle is a risk factor for heart disease. Regular, moderate to vigorous physical activity helps prevent heart and many other diseases. The more effort expended during the activity, the greater the benefits. However, even moderate-intensity activities help if done regularly and long-term. Physical activity can help control blood cholesterol, diabetes and obesity, as well as help lower blood pressure.

Along with family history and an assessment of these and other factors, a health care provider will be better equipped to determine and address cardiac risk. For more on assessing cardiac risk, visit the American Heart Association.

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