Cardiovascular disease is a systemic disease that affects the heart and arteries in the body. It is called coronary artery disease (CAD) when the heart is involved and peripheral arterial disease (PAD) when it involves the other arteries in the body such as the arms, legs, kidneys, intestines and the brain. Risk factors for vascular disease include a family history of vascular disease, age, gender, race, and several risk factors that can be controlled, including high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol, obesity, lack of exercise and diabetes.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), extensive clinical and statistical studies have identified several factors that increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. These risk factors can be grouped into two classifications: major risk factors and contributing risk factors.
Major risk factors are those that medical research has shown to be definitely associated with a significant increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Contributing risk factors are those associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, but their significance and prevalence haven't yet been precisely determined.
The AHA has identified several risk factors for coronary heart disease (heart attack). Some of them can be changed, and some cannot. But the more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance that he or she will develop heart disease.
What are the major risk factors that can't be changed?
Heredity (including race): Children of parents with cardiovascular disease are more likely to develop it themselves. African-Americans experience more severe hypertension than whites. Consequently, their risk of heart disease is greater.
Male sex: Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women, and they have attacks earlier in life. Even after menopause, when women's death rate from heart disease increases, it's not as great as men's.
Increasing age: About four out of five people who die of heart attack are over 65. At older ages, women who have heart attacks are twice as likely as men to die from them within a few weeks.
What are the major risk factors that can be changed?
Cigarette and tobacco smoke: Smokers' risk of heart attack is more than twice that of nonsmokers. Cigarette smoking is the biggest risk factor for sudden cardiac death - smokers have two to four times the risk of nonsmokers. Smokers who have a heart attack are more likely to die and die suddenly (within an hour) than nonsmokers. Available evidence also indicates that chronic exposure to environmental tobacco smoke (second-hand smoke/passive smoking) may increase the risk of heart disease.
High blood cholesterol levels: The risk of coronary heart disease rises as blood cholesterol levels increase. When other risk factors (such as high blood pressure and cigarette smoke) are present, this risk increases even more. A person's cholesterol level also is affected by age, sex, heredity and diet.
High blood pressure: High blood pressure increases the heart's workload, causing the heart to enlarge and weaken over time. It also increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, kidney failure and congestive heart failure. When high blood pressure exists with obesity, smoking, high blood cholesterol levels or diabetes, the risk of heart attack or stroke increases several times.
Physical inactivity: Lack of physical activity is a risk factor for coronary heart disease. Regular aerobic exercise plays a significant role in preventing heart and blood vessel disease. Even modest levels of low-intensity physical activity are beneficial if done regularly and long term. Exercise can help control blood cholesterol, diabetes and obesity, as well as help to lower blood pressure.
What are other contributing risk factors?
Diabetes mellitus: Diabetes seriously increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. More than 80 percent of people with diabetes die of some form of heart or blood vessel disease.
Obesity: People who have an excessive accumulation of body fat are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke even if they have no other risk factors. Obesity is unhealthy because excess weight increases the strain on the heart. It is linked with coronary heart disease mainly because it influences blood pressure and blood cholesterol and can lead to diabetes.
Stress: Stress also may be a contributing factor. Some scientists have noted a relationship between coronary heart disease risk and a person's life stress, behavior habits and socioeconomic status. These factors may affect established risk factors. For example, people under stress may start smoking or smoke more than they otherwise would.
Source: American Heart Association