risk factor word cloud

If heart disease is the number 1 killer of both women and men in this country, and if 1 in 3 deaths of women are caused by heart disease, it stands to reason that we’re all at risk.

In a lot of ways, we’re at risk just because we’re Americans. The way we eat (either by choice or through the food supply), our lack of exercise, our over-extended, super-stressed lifestyle. All of these things contribute to increasing our risk of heart disease.

My cardiologist, who is not originally from here, put it bluntly to me last week: “The risk is greatest in America. Because Americans are fat.” (As we’ve seen before, he’s not one to mince words.)

Here are the major risk factors for heart disease:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol and trigylcerieds
  • Overweight/obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Diabetes, prediabetes, and metabolic syndrome
  • Family history of early heart disease
  • History of preeclampsia during pregnancy

And here are the other risk factors:

  • Sleep apnea
  • Stress or depression
  • Too much alcohol
  • Birth control pills (especially in women over 35 and who smoke)
  • Anemia
  • Unhealthy diet

And here’s the even worse news: Risk factors are the great multipliers. If you have one, you double your risk of a heart attack. If you have two, it’s quadrupled. Three or more and your risk increases tenfold.


But stay with me here: most of the worst risk factors with are, in the parlance of the National, Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute, modifiable. It means they are within your control. And if you do control them, you can reduce your risk of heart attack by up to 82%.

I want to make sure you heard me: 82%.

So, look over these lists, count up how many risk factors you have, say a little prayer of thanks that most are modifiable, and then start modifying. Every little bit helps. Even a modest weight loss of 10 pounds or an increase in activity to a half hour a day will do wonders for your risk. As will a drop in blood pressure or cholesterol or an increase in fiber, vegetables, and fruits. (But smoking – there’s no “cutting back” there. Just knock that off.)

Don’t do it for me, or out of guilt, or any other reason other than this: You really, really don’t want to have a heart attack.

Trust me.

Source: National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute