Eating right, exercising and not smoking are all the obvious lifestyle changes you can incorporate into your everyday routine to help lower your risk for heart disease. Still, there are a few other risk factors that are just as important, if not more so, than the lifestyle factors I mentioned above.
The first is high cholesterol. Did you know that not all cases of high cholesterol are due to lifestyle changes? Some are inherited. In fact, one in 300 people have what’s known as familiar hypercholesterolemia, which is a genetic disorder that results in extremely high cholesterol levels. If you have this genetic disorder, you can eat a really healthy diet and still develop dangerously high cholesterol. That’s why we now recommend that all patients get a cholesterol panel of blood tests starting as a young adult.
Another risk factor is hypertension, or high blood pressure. Again, hypertension is often due to lifestyle factors such as obesity and smoking, but that’s not always the case. Some people have a genetic predisposition to developing high blood pressure as they age, and this can happen no matter how much you exercise or what you eat. So having your blood pressure checked regularly is also important. Normal blood pressure is less than 120/80.
And then there’s family history, which is a very important factor. The reason I say that is because there are a lot of genetic interactions involved with heart disease that we still don’t fully understand. When we say family history, we’re primarily talking about immediate family members (your mother, father, siblings and children). But those aren’t the only family members that matter. If your only relative with heart disease is an aunt or uncle, it’s certainly worth making sure that you don’t have early signs of heart disease.
Depending on your family history and the results of your cholesterol and blood pressure screenings, you may be a candidate for a coronary calcium screening test. This is a 20-minute CT scan that takes a picture of your arteries to see if there is any calcified plaque. The results of this test can help us determine whether someone would benefit from taking cholesterol lowering medication, and possibly seeing a cardiologist for further diagnostic tests.
It’s important to continue to do heart-healthy things, like not smoking, eating right, watching your weight and getting regular exercise (the American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes at least five days a week). If you combine that with an annual doctor’s visit to check your key numbers and go over your family history, you’ll be setting yourself up well for great long-term heart health.
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