Know the Risk Factors for Heart Disease

By Colin Fuller, MD

Understanding heart attacks and the risk factors for heart disease can help you take action against the preventable causes of heart attacks.

The heart, just like every other muscle in the body, needs oxygen to survive. A heart attack occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart muscle is severely reduced or cut off completely.

Coronary heart disease and coronary artery disease both result from the buildup of plaque in the heart’s arteries. Plaque is a waxy substance made up of cholesterol, fatty substances and other materials. When plaque accumulates along the walls of arteries, the condition is known as atherosclerosis. The artery thickens and hardens, thereby reducing its capacity for carrying blood.

When plaque builds up, a piece might break off or a blood clot might form on the plaque’s surface. Either event can block the flow of blood, leading to a heart attack.

Cigarette and tobacco smoke, high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, obesity and diabetes are the six major independent risk factors for coronary heart disease that you can modify or control. Cigarette smoking is the most important preventable cause of premature death in the United States. Cigarette smoking by itself increases the risk of death from coronary heart disease. When combined with other factors, it increases the risk greatly. Cigarette smokers have a higher risk of developing fatty buildups in arteries, several types of cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Smoking increases blood pressure, decreases exercise tolerance and increases the tendency for blood to clot.

For help with quitting tobacco, call 800-QUIT-NOW (Nevada Tobacco Users Helpline) or visit for information and assistance.

Since high blood cholesterol poses such a risk for heart disease, you need to have your cholesterol level checked regularly and, if it is high, to take the medication that your physician prescribes.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, damages arteries so that they burst or clog more easily. It causes blood vessel walls to thicken and deteriorate. When blood vessel walls thicken with increased blood pressure, cholesterol or other fat-like substances may break off of artery walls and block an artery.

Although about one out of three U.S. adults has high blood pressure, more than one in five people with high blood pressure do not know that they have it. It is vital that you have your blood pressure checked at least annually. Once high blood pressure is detected, your physician can prescribe medications to control your blood pressure.

Being physically active and controlling your weight have many benefits, not least of which is improved heart health.

Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death and disability among people with type 2 diabetes. At least 65 percent of people with diabetes die from some form of heart disease or stroke. Adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have heart disease or a stroke than adults without diabetes. Talk with your physician about a plan to manage your diabetes.

February is National Heart Month. Take control of these heart attack risk factors.

Learn more about the Heart and Vascular Institute at Northern Nevada Medical Center.