There are many factors that contribute to your chances of suffering heart disease. It is the interplay of these varied conditions that adds up to each person's overall risk.
Some things you can't change. But changing your lifestyle choices is the best way to reduce the chances of developing heart disease, and of improving your condition if you already have it.
Main risk factors
- Family history of heart disease
- Age – risk increases as you age
- Gender – men are at greater risk of predisposing conditions
- High cholesterol
- Physical inactivity
- Being overweight or obese.
Stress is considered a potential trigger. Whether stress contributes to the build-up of plaque in the arteries is not proven, but it does raise blood pressure, and can affect your quality of life.
Depression has been acknowledged by the Australian Heart Foundation as a risk factor in heart disease. In assessing the evidence the Heart Foundation reported that there is strong and consistent evidence that people who experience depression, or are socially isolated, or do not have quality social support, are at greater risk of developing coronary heart disease.
For people who already have coronary heart disease, depression, social isolation or lack of quality social support can affect their recovery and future health.
What you can't change
A family history of heart disease
Your genes can predispose you to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes - all factors in developing heart disease. If your parents or siblings developed heart disease when fairly young (males at under 45, females at under 55), you should be particularly alert.
Even so, a healthy lifestyle and regular medical checks can significantly reduce your risk.
Remember, what happens in your family may not be genetic. Families don't just share genes, they can also share poor lifestyle habits, like eating badly and not being active. A healthy lifestyle is the best weapon any family has against heart disease.
Both men and women are more likely to develop heart disease as they get older. In 2007, 62% of Australians over 75 had heart disease, as did 23% of those aged 45–54 years.
Men are more prone to developing high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease.
- All men who are middle-aged and older should have regular health checks. They should eat healthily and have moderate exercise at least four times a week.
- Older women are much more prone to heart disease than is widely thought. After menopause or a hysterectomy, hormonal changes and other factors put women at far greater risk.
Diabetes is a disease marked by high levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood. Over time this damages the arteries and veins. There is no cure for diabetes, but the disease can be controlled. The most common form, type 2 diabetes, is largely preventable through a healthy, active lifestyle.
What you can change
Smoking affects the health of the smoker and of the people around them, including children. There is nothing good to be said about it.
But here's something good to say about giving up. Within weeks of your last cigarette, your risk of heart disease has already fallen. Within 2 years you're back to the risk level of a non-smoker. You also have improved lung function, your sense of taste back and more money in the bank.
Being inactive increases your chance of heart disease - second only to smoking as a risk factor. If you are inactive, you are almost twice as likely to suffer coronary heart disease, compared to those who get enough exercise. Thirty minutes a day is enough to bring wide-ranging benefits.
Eating food that is high in saturated fats and salt, and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals, can increase your risk of heart disease. Fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and dietary fibre are all good for heart health, and also protect against other illnesses.
Being overweight or obese
Being overweight heightens two major risk factors for heart disease - high blood pressure and diabetes. The risk can increase by a factor of 10. Combined with regular exercise, a well-balanced diet can help you achieve gradual weight loss. Even moderate loss (5–10%) brings major health gains.
High blood pressure
A high salt intake can contribute to high blood pressure. But you can help lower your blood pressure through a low-salt, low saturated-fat diet, with plenty of fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy products, and regular exercise.
Too much cholesterol in the blood increases the risk of coronary heart disease and of heart attack. A diet that is high in fibre and low in saturated fats and cholesterol can help reduce your cholesterol levels.