As one of the most common chronic diseases in the modern world, chances are heart disease has affected you or a member of your family. Although no single genetic test can accurately predict our risk of developing it, a number of gene mutations can predispose us when interacting with other risks present in our environments.
While your chance of having a heart attack may be higher if it runs in your family, a number of lifestyle factors at play in the development of cardiovascular disease are actually well within our control.
What can we do to reduce our risk even if we do carry the genetic tendency? Stop smoking, for starters – smoking without doubt poses the highest of all risks to our long term health. It is not uncommon for patients to become overly concerned with their cholesterol levels and make great efforts to reduce them through diet and medication, yet continue to smoke. However, the relative risk of smoking far outweighs any benefit of lowering cholesterol levels.
High cholesterol is certainly implicated in coronary artery disease in which fatty deposits build up on the blood vessel wall, eventually leading to narrowing of the artery. This can result in chest pain (angina) and ultimately may lead to a heart attack if there is a complete obstruction of the artery. To reduce cholesterol levels, reduction of dietary saturated fats, mostly found in red meat and dairy products, is crucial.
Another important health marker is blood pressure, which is essential to control to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. High blood pressure, known as hypertension, can be caused by stress, high salt intake and being overweight, all of which are amenable to lifestyle modification. There is also a genetic predisposition to developing hypertension which can make it challenging to control through these methods alone, often making it necessary to use prescription drugs.
Excessive consumption of dietary sugar also has an impact on future heart disease. Any sugar not used for energy requirements is stored as fat, mainly around the waist, leading to the release of specific chemicals that produce inflammation within the body. This increases the risk of coronary artery disease and also of diabetes, which itself is a risk factor for developing heart disease. No wonder doctors seem obsessed with reducing the waist measurements of their patients!
Despite its genetic component, heart disease does not have to be our destiny. Taking responsibility for our health and making lifestyle improvements to our diet and exercise routine, stopping smoking and reducing stress, will all decrease our risk significantly.