What are the risk factors for heart disease?
The statistics for heart disease in Australia are staggering. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one person is killed every 18 minutes, and on average 79 people die each day from heart disease (1).
While two-thirds of Australian adults have three or more risk factors for heart disease, most don’t even realise they are at risk, to begin with (2). In this article, we take a deeper dive into the risk factors for heart disease, and what you can do to lower your risk or prevent the disease altogether.
Firstly, what is heart disease?
Heart disease is a collective term used to describe a variety of conditions that affect the heart including:
- Blood vessel disease e.g. coronary heart disease
- Irregular heartbeat e.g. arrhythmias
- Disease of the heart muscle
- Heart valve disease
- Genetic conditions or congenital heart defects (3,4)
Coronary heart disease (also known as Coronary artery disease) is the most common type of heart disease. This condition occurs when plaque – made from a collection of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances – deposits and builds up in the artery walls (3,4). Over time, this causes the arteries to narrow which can reduce blood flow and lead to a heart attack or a stroke. This process of plaque buildup is known as Atherosclerosis (3,4).
Coronary heart disease, along with many other forms of heart disease is largely preventable as many of the risk factors can be modified through diet and lifestyle changes.
What are the risk factors for developing heart disease?
There’s no one cause of heart disease, but rather a collection of risk factors. Some of the risk factors for heart disease can be prevented through lifestyle changes aka modifiable risk factors, and some cannot – known as non-modifiable risk factors. There are also several medical conditions that influence your chance of developing heart disease, all of which we’ve summarised below.
Modifiable lifestyle risk factors for heart disease:
- Smoking – Smoking is one of the major risk factors for heart disease. That’s because the chemicals in cigarettes cause blood vessels to swell and become inflamed, increase the formation of plaque and also thicken the blood, increasing the likelihood of clots (5).
- Excessive alcohol consumption – alcohol affects heart health in several ways. For example, it can increase blood pressure and heart rate, cause an irregular heartbeat, and also weaken the muscles of the heart (6). Research shows it can also increase the risk of heart attack, heart failure, and even death (7).
- Poor diet – Consuming a diet high in saturated fats and trans fats, sugar, and salt has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, and associated conditions such as atherosclerosis (7,8).
- Physical inactivity – Lack of movement not only increases your risk of heart disease, but also increases the likelihood of developing other medical conditions associated with the condition, for example, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and carrying excess fat mass (8).
Health conditions that are risk factors for heart disease:
- High blood pressure – high blood pressure (aka hypertension) is a well-known risk factor for heart disease. That’s because it places more force on the artery walls and can damage blood vessels, increasing the risk for conditions such as coronary heart disease, stroke, and heart failure (9)
- High cholesterol – high cholesterol, particularly high LDL cholesterol levels causes plaques to build up on artery walls and can lead to coronary heart disease, the most common form of heart disease (9)
- Being overweight or obese – carrying excess fat is one of the major risk factors for heart disease. That’s because it increases the likelihood of several health conditions, for example, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Following a healthy diet and engaging in regular movement can help to reduce fat mass, and reduce several of the risk factors of heart disease (9)
- Diabetes – research indicates that adults who live with diabetes are two to four times more likely to die from heart disease compared to those who don’t have the condition (7-9)
- Mental Health – according to research, conditions like depression can increase the risk of coronary heart disease by up to 64% (7)
Unmodifiable risk factors for heart disease
Some risk factors for heart disease cannot be changed and are out of control. These are known as unmodifiable risk factors and include:
- Family history – your risk of heart disease increases if you have a close family member e.g. a parent or sibling who experienced a heart attack or stroke before 60 years of age (1,7-9)
- Age – the older you are, the higher your risk of heart disease (1,7-9)
- Ethnic background – Research has found that people of certain origins are at higher risk of heart disease. These include people from Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, Maori, Pacific Islander, South Asian, and Middle Eastern descent (1,7,-9)
- Female-specific risk factors – while most risk factors are shared among men and women, complications during pregnancy such as gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, and high blood pressure can increase a woman’s risk in later years. Also, women who are post-menopausal have also been found to be at higher risk, due to changes in metabolism, blood pressure, and cholesterol (1,7-9)
How can I reduce my risk of heart disease?
While there are some risk factors you can’t change, luckily there are many lifestyle modifications you can make to lower your risk, or even prevent heart disease.
To learn more about how you can reduce your risk of heart disease and improve your heart health, click here
The takehome message
In summary, there are several risk factors for developing heart disease, many of which can be prevented through diet and lifestyle modification.
If you have medical conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, or want to reduce your risk of heart disease, then personalised support from an Accredited Practising Dietitian may be a great option for you.
At Heart Smart Australia, we offer individualised programs which include weekly or fortnightly sessions with an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Health Coach, programs designed to help you make sustainable lifestyle changes to improve your heart health.
To learn more about what our programs can offer you, book your free assessment to speak to one of our friendly staff today.