What Is a Risk Factor?
In almost every disease or condition we encounter, we often hear the term “risk factors.” Doctors typically prescribe a treatment to help minimize or address them. But what exactly are risk factors, and how do they affect us?
As defined by the World Health Organization, a risk factor is any attribute, characteristic, or exposure of an individual that increases the likelihood of developing a disease or injury. This can be divided into two categories: ones you can control and ones you can’t.
Heart Disease Risk Factors You Can Control
Many things to which you subject your body, including what you ingest, breathe, and come into contact with are within your own control. What you do on a daily basis, for example, the amount of rest and exercise you get, how you respond to stress, and your overall health, can also be classified under this category.
Heart Disease Risk Factors You Can’t Control
This type is beyond our control and is just something we have to live with. Examples include chronological age, which has so far been undefeated; genes, which at present can only be changed at great expense for a few diseases; and previous injuries, which may increase your chances of developing heart problems.
Heart Disease Risk Factors: What You and Your Doctor Can Do
For obvious reasons, we will be focusing on the risk factors over which we have some control. And to simplify matters, we will further divide these into two broad categories.
In basic terms, this includes everything you ingest and how they affect your body weight and composition. Being overweight increases the risk of hypertension (high blood pressure), which can cause coronary heart disease and stroke. A diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol can lead to atherosclerosis, a buildup in your arteries that makes them narrower and stiff. This causes the heart to work harder and puts you at a higher risk of a stroke or heart attack.
An unhealthy diet may also lead to diabetes, which—if left uncontrolled—can increase your risk of developing heart disease. Heavy drinking, meanwhile, can cause cardiomyopathy, which is a disease of the heart muscle that makes it enlarged, thick, or rigid.
There are several bad habits that can contribute to increasing your risk factors for heart conditions. Smoking cigarettes, for one, is a major cause of several preventable diseases. Smokers are almost twice as likely to have a heart attack compared with people who have never smoked. It can damage the lining of your arteries, reduce the amount of oxygen in your blood, and make it more likely for your blood to clot.
People who don’t get enough sleep or exercise are also at a higher risk than those who do. Both are vital activities that contribute to a healthier body in general, and a stronger heart in particular. Excessive stress, on the other hand, can lead to hypertension, making you more prone to heart conditions.
What Your Doctor Can Measure to Determine Heart Health and Heart Disease Risk Factors
1. Heart rate
The normal resting heart rate for adults can range from 60 to 100 beats per minute. Generally, a lower number implies more efficient heart function and better cardiovascular fitness. An unusually high (tachycardia) or low (bradycardia) heart rate may indicate an underlying problem.
2. Blood pressure
Blood pressure is classified into five categories. Blood pressure numbers of less than 120/80 mm Hg are considered within the normal range. When readings consistently range from 120-129 systolic and less than 80 mm Hg diastolic, it is classified as elevated.
Hypertension stage 1 is when blood pressure ranges from 130-139 systolic or 80-89 mm Hg diastolic. If it goes to 140/90 mm Hg or higher, it is classified as hypertension stage 2. And when your blood pressure readings suddenly exceed 180/120 mm Hg, it becomes a hypertensive crisis.
3. Body mass index (BMI)
The BMI is a numerical value of your weight in relation to your height. A BMI between 18.5 and 25 kg/m² indicates a normal weight. A BMI of less than 18.5 kg/m² is considered underweight. A BMI between 25 kg/m² and 29.9 kg/m² is considered overweight. And a BMI of 30 kg/m² or higher is considered obese.
4. Lipid profile
A lipid profile is a blood test that measures the amount of cholesterol and fats called triglycerides in the blood. A report typically contains the following items: total cholesterol, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein (HDL, the “good cholesterol”), and low-density lipoprotein (LDL, the “bad cholesterol”).
Your lipid profile may reveal either genetic or diet and lifestyle issues. Since the numbers have to be interpreted in context along with other risk factors, it would be advisable to have your doctor explain the readings and recommend a course of action.
5. Fasting blood glucose levels
This type of blood test is taken after an overnight fast. A fasting blood sugar level of less than 100 mg/dL (5.6 mmol/L) is normal. A fasting blood sugar level from 100 to 125 mg/dL (5.6 to 6.9 mmol/L) is considered prediabetes. If it’s 126 mg/dL (7 mmol/L) or higher on two separate tests, you have diabetes. Hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) is another test commonly used to diagnose and monitor diabetes.
Dr. Daggy says: These are just some of the more common diagnostic tests your doctor can perform. However, there are other tests that are not routine but have also proven to be useful. One that I like is the omega-3 index, which measures the amount of the fish oil omega-3s (EPA and DHA) in the red blood cells, and is used as a way to measure a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease and more. Tell your healthcare providers that you want to be an active partner with them in keeping your heart healthy; that you want to understand your risks and are willing to make diet and lifestyle changes to address them. For some conditions, your doctor might tell you that you need prescription drugs. Even if that’s the case, doing all you can help minimize the number and strength of medications prescribed. That would reduce your risk of an adverse drug experience or a drug-drug interaction.
What You Can Do
On your end, eating right and living a healthy lifestyle remains the most effective way to maintain heart health. While it is much easier said than done, you can do it in steps to make it less of a burden.
First, all adults aged 20 or older should regularly go to a doctor for diagnostic testing and monitoring of risk factors. If you smoke, seek help to stop. Then, gradually change your daily routine to get enough exercise, regardless if it’s walking, running, swimming, or other aerobic activities you prefer.
Adopting a low-saturated fat, high-fiber, largely plant-based diet can substantially reduce the risk of developing heart disease.
Finally, taking nutritional supplements that support healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels can be beneficial. For information on natural, clinically proven, nutritional supplements that can improve your heart health go to our Heart Health page.