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How Healthy Is Your Heart

Heart Disease: Why Should You Care?

If you're like many people, you may think of heart disease as a problem that happens to other folks. "I feel fine," you may think, "so I have nothing to worry about." Wrong, heart disease is a major killer of both women and men. It affects many people at midlife, as well as in old age. It also can happen to those who "feel fine." These facts may seem frightening, but they need not be. The good news is that you have a lot of power to protect and improve your heart health. This guide will help you find out your own risk of heart disease and take steps to prevent it. Every risk factor counts. Research shows that each individual risk factor greatly increases the chances of developing heart disease. Moreover, the worse a particular risk factor is, the more likely you are to develop heart disease. For example, if you have high blood pressure, the higher it is, the greater your chances of developing heart disease, including its many serious consequences. A damaged heart can damage your life by interfering with enjoyable activities, preventing you from holding a job, and even keeping you from doing simple things, such as taking a walk or climbing steps. What can you do to reduce your personal risk of heart disease? First, you can learn about your own risk factors. Second, you can begin to make healthful changes in your diet, physical activity, and other daily habits. Whatever your age or current state of health, it's never too late to take steps to protect your heart. It's also never too early. The sooner you act, the better

What Is Heart Disease?

Coronary heart disease often simply called heart disease occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle become hardened and narrowed due to a build-up of plaque on the arteries' inner walls. Plaque is the accumulation of fat, cholesterol, and other substances. As plaque continues to build up in the arteries, blood flow to the heart is reduced. Heart disease can lead to a heart attack. A heart attack happens when an artery becomes totally blocked with plaque, preventing vital oxygen and nutrients from getting to the heart. A heart attack can cause permanent damage to the heart muscle. Heart disease is one of several cardiovascular diseases, which are disorders of the heart and blood vessel system. Other cardiovascular diseases include stroke, high blood pressure, and rheumatic

Who Is at Risk?

Risk factors are conditions or habits that make a person more likely to develop a disease. They can also increase the chances that an existing disease will get worse. Important risk factors for heart disease that you can do something about are cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, overweight, physical inactivity, and diabetes. Recent research shows that more than 95 percent of those who die from heart disease have at least one of these major risk factors. Certain risk factors, such as getting older, can't be changed. After menopause, women are more likely to develop heart disease. For both women and men, middle age is a time of increasing risk because people are more likely to develop heart disease risk factors during this stage of life. Family history of early heart disease is another risk factor that can't be changed. If your father or brother had a heart attack before age 55, or if your mother or sister had one before age 65, you are more likely to get heart disease. While certain risk factors cannot be changed, it is important to realize that you do have control over many others. Regardless of your age or family history, you can take important steps to lower your risk of heart disease.

What's Your Risk?

The first step toward heart health is becoming aware of your own personal risk for heart disease. Some risks, such as smoking cigarettes or being overweight, are obvious: All of us know whether we smoke or whether we need to lose a few pounds. But other risk factors, such as high blood pressure or high blood cholesterol, have few visible signs or symptoms. So you'll need to gather some information to create your own personal "heart profile.

How Risk Works

It may be tempting to believe that doing just one healthy thing will take care of your heart disease risk. For example, you may hope that if you walk or swim regularly, you can still eat a lot of fatty foods and stay fairly healthy. Not true. To protect your heart, it is vital to make changes that address each and every risk factor you have. You can make the changes gradually, one at a time. But making them is very important. While each risk factor increases your risk of heart disease, having more than one risk factor is especially serious. That's because risk factors tend to "gang up" and worsen each other's effects. For example, if you have high blood cholesterol and you smoke, your heart disease risk increases enormously. The message is clear: You need to take heart disease risk seriously, and the best time to reduce that risk is now.