How to Tell if You Are at Risk for Heart Disease

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Every minute in America, one person dies of a heart attack, stroke or another form of cardiovascular disease. As we know, one out of every three women experiences some form of CVD. And yet, most of those cases are preventable if you lead a heart-healthy lifestyle. 

The first step toward heart health is becoming aware of your own personal risk for heart disease. Some risks, such as smoking cigarettes, are obvious: Every person knows whether or not he/she smokes. But other risk factors, such as high blood pressure or high blood cholesterol, generally don't have obvious signs or symptoms. So you'll need to gather some information to create your personal "heart profile." Read on to learn what you need to know to assess if you should get heart health screening.

Key health indicators

Some of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, body weight/body mass index and high blood glucose. These numbers can serve as a wake-up call to jump-start a healthier lifestyle.

Testing should occur as follows:

  • Blood pressure – Every regular health care visit starting at age 20
  • Cholesterol – Every five years starting at age 20. More often if: total cholesterol is above 200; if you are a man older than 45 or a woman older than 50; if you’re a woman whose HDL is less than 50 or a man whose HDL is less than 40; if you have other cardiovascular risk factors
  • Weight/body mass index – Every health care visit starting at age 20
  • Waist circumference – As needed starting at age 20
  • Blood glucose – Every three years starting at age 45

Family history

If you have a family history of heart disease, it’s important to share that information with your doctor. This will help inform your physician about your genetics, making him or her more aware of additional risk factors. Some risk factors, such as age and family history of early heart disease, can't be changed. For women, age becomes a risk factor at 55. After menopause, women are more apt to get heart disease, in part because their body's production of estrogen drops. Women who have gone through early menopause, either naturally or because they have had a hysterectomy, are twice as likely to develop heart disease as women of the same age who have not yet gone through menopause.

Another reason for the increasing risk is that middle age is a time when both men and women tend to develop risk factors for heart disease. 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 yourself. Preeclampsia is another heart disease risk factor that you can't control. However, if you've had the condition, you should take extra care to try and control other heart disease risk factors.

Health habits

Do you smoke?

Are you physically inactive?

Do you drink more than one drink a day?

Do you eat a diet high in fat?

How do you respond to stress?

The answers to all of the above could also impact your risk for heart disease and stroke. Talk to your doctor so he or she has a better idea of your lifestyle and can determine whether or not you need to be screened. In addition, your answers will help your doctor understand how he or she can help you improve your health.

You can make changes gradually, one at a time. But making them is very important. Every person needs to take her heart disease risk seriously—and take action now to reduce that risk.

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Dr. Mohammed Rais

Written by Dr. Mohammed Rais