Lifestyles Can Raise Heart Disease Risk

Eating an unhealthy diet, not exercising, and smoking can all conspire to raise your risk of heart disease. The same factors increase your odds of developing high blood pressure and diabetes.

Unhealthy diet

When it comes to heart disease risk, you are what you eat. As noted above, a poor diet contributes to elevated cholesterol and triglycerides, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. A number of major studies provide compelling evidence that diet also affects the likelihood of progressing to full-blown coronary artery disease and having a heart attack. The Lyon Diet Heart Study, for instance, reported that people who regularly adhere to a Mediterranean-style diet are 50% to 70% less likely to have a heart attack, stroke, or other type of cardiovascular problem or to die from heart disease. This type of diet includes eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and nuts; using olive oil and other types of unsaturated fats for cooking; eating more fish and poultry and less red meat; and drinking wine in moderation. Other research shows that consuming more omega-3 fats, found in certain fish, nuts, and other foods, as well as in supplements, may be particularly heart-healthy (see “Healthy fats”).

Just about everyone can benefit from a heart-healthy diet. Be aware, however, that while some foods, such as soy products and cereals, come with labels identifying them as “heart-healthy,” no one food will prevent or reverse heart disease. Instead, decades of research have provided the basis for some general guidelines (see “Eat healthy foods”) that, if followed, can go a long way toward preventing heart disease.


Sedentary lifestyle

Only one in three American adults regularly engages in any kind of leisure-time physical activity. The reasons are many, but certainly the advent of labor-saving devices and the lure of television and the Internet are taking their toll — along with harried lives that leave little time for exercise. Yet it is clear that physical activity is a good investment of time when it comes to protecting your heart. Sedentary living roughly doubles the risk for coronary artery disease, making it as risky as smoking, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure.

More than 50 years of research shows that the people who are the most physically active are only half as likely to develop coronary artery disease as the most sedentary people. And the benefits accrue in a dose-response manner: the more physically active you are, the lower your risk for heart disease. What’s more, regular physical activity raises HDL cholesterol levels, reduces triglycerides, lowers blood pressure, burns body fat, and lowers blood sugar levels. When combined with weight loss, exercise can also lower LDL levels. It also helps alleviate mental stress, which can be a trigger for heart problems. Following a heart attack, an exercise-based rehabilitation program can reduce the likelihood of dying from heart disease by one-third. (For tips on how to add exercise to your life, see “Get active.”)



Tobacco use and exposure

Everyone knows that smoking is a major health hazard: it’s the leading preventable cause of death in the United States. But some people may be surprised to learn that smoking is not only a cause of cancer, but also one of the most significant risk factors for heart disease. People who smoke are two to four times as likely to die from heart disease as nonsmokers.

Passive exposure to other people’s smoke also puts you at risk. A report issued by the U.S. Surgeon General in 2006 warned that nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke at home or work increased their risk of developing heart disease by 25% to 30%.

In all, about one in three smoking-related deaths is from coronary artery disease. But quitting smoking can significantly reduce the risk. Within a year of quitting, smokers can cut their heart disease risk in half. In 15 years, the coronary artery disease risk for a former smoker is very close to that of a person who never smoked. One possible reason for this decrease in risk is that smoking probably contributes to blood vessel inflammation; removing that irritant should slow the inflammatory process. (For tips on how to kick the habit, see “Stop smoking.”)


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