What causes heart disease and how to prevent it

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It's not just a disease of older men—heart disease affects both the young and old, and every gender.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in this country for both men and women. Many mistakenly believe it's a disease of old age, but heart disease can strike at any age.

Some of the reasons we get heart disease, such as gender, age and a family history of heart trouble, cannot be controlled. Men are more likely to have a heart attack than women, and men have heart attacks earlier in life. Children of parents with heart disease are more likely to get it themselves.

Our ethnicity and race also may play a role in heart disease risk. African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians and some Asian Americans have a higher risk of heart disease compared to Caucasians. While you can't control things such as your age and ethnicity, you do have control of other important heart disease risk factors.

If you've recently been diagnosed with heart disease, you can get support from your Regence health plan. Many plans include Care Management, which can help you learn more about your disease and understand your treatment options.

Health issues that affect your heart

Taking steps to address these potential health issues now can help keep your heart healthy for the long haul:

  • Diabetes: High blood sugar damages blood vessels. If you manage your diabetes well, you reduce your chances of getting heart disease. And if you can use diet and exercise to keep your blood sugar in a healthy range, even better. Some people with type 2 diabetes are even able to reduce or eliminate their diabetes medications by adopting a healthy diet and getting plenty of physical activity in their daily lives.
  • High blood pressure: When you have high blood pressure, your heart has to work harder and this increases your chance for stroke, kidney failure and congestive heart failure. Many people control high blood pressure with diet, exercise and weight loss. If these steps aren't enough, adding in medication can ensure your blood pressure remains in a healthy range.
  • High cholesterol: If you have high cholesterol, you're more likely to get heart disease. As with high blood pressure, you can support your body's ability to keep high cholesterol in check with diet and exercise. Medications are another option for treating high cholesterol levels.
  • Higher body weight: Being overweight increases your risk for developing diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. If you have extra body fat, especially around the waist, you're more likely to develop heart disease. Try addressing this issue by moving your body regularly, eating more fruits and vegetables and limiting the "junk" food—chips, crackers, candy, baked goods and other processed items—in your diet.
  • Physical inactivity: Moving more has many benefits for your heart. It can lower blood pressure, reduce insulin resistance and strengthen your heart muscle. Less insulin resistance means less risk of developing type 2 diabetes, too.
  • Tobacco smoke: If you smoke, you are two to four times more likely to develop heart disease than a nonsmoker. Quitting tobacco isn't easy, but your heart will thank you for it. To increase your odds of successfully kicking nicotine in all forms—including smoking and vaping—ask your doctor about nicotine patches, medications and support programs.
  • Stress: The way you respond to stress may harm your heart. If you turn to food, drugs, alcohol or tobacco when life is stressful, you're adding to your odds of heart disease. Try finding other ways of coping: Take a walk, meet someone for coffee, meditate or get support from family, friends or a therapist.
  • Alcohol: While moderate drinking may not increase your risk of heart disease, drinking too much can increase the amount of fats in your blood called triglycerides. High levels of these fats, plus high cholesterol, contribute to fatty deposits in your artery walls, which can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Risk factors of heart disease and what to do for prevention

There's a group of conditions that often occur together and make you more likely to get heart disease and diabetes. It's called metabolic syndrome, and it means that you have three or more of the following heart disease risk factors:

  • Waist size bigger than 35 inches for women or 40 inches for men
  • Triglycerides higher than 150 mg/dL
  • HDL levels of less than 50 mg/dL for women or less than 40 mg/dL for men
  • Blood pressure in excess of 130/85 mmHg
  • Fasting blood sugar of 100 mg/dL or more

Losing just 5–10% of your body weight can help reduce your heart disease risk if you have metabolic syndrome. For a woman who weighs 200 pounds, for example, that means losing 10 to 20 pounds.

Eating a diet built around vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy and fruit, as well as regular physical activity, can go a long way toward reducing risk for heart disease, too. Fill two-thirds of your plate with vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and beans. The other one-third is for lean protein, such as chicken or fish, and starches, including potatoes, pasta and whole grains.