6 Heart Disease Risk Factors You Have the Power to Change

How to keep your cardiovascular system in the best working condition


By: Steven Nissen, MD

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Heart disease is largely preventable, and we’ve known about the risk factors for decades. The good news is that every one of us can do something to lower our risk factors. Let’s take a look at each of these.

One of the most important is cholesterol.

You want to know your cholesterol levels — both the bad cholesterol, which is LDL, and the good cholesterol, which is HDL.

We recommend that people obtain a cholesterol panel beginning in their early to mid 20s.

We don’t often treat people at those young ages with drugs, but we may recommend a change in diet. Being aware that you have a cholesterol problem lets you begin to do things in terms of lifestyle that may actually help.

Blood pressure is the next most important risk factor.

Many Americans have high blood pressure.

It goes up with body weight. So being overweight will predispose you to high blood pressure.

A normal blood pressure is less than 120 over 80. We don’t usually treat high blood pressure with medications until it gets above 140.

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There are many ways to have your blood pressure taken. You can have it done in a pharmacy, for instance. Or you can buy an electronic blood pressure cuff and monitor it closely.

Obesity is driving a great deal of heart disease.

You can go online and calculate this for yourself. Type body mass index into a search engine search box and a whole series of calculators will appear in the results.

They’re very simple. You enter your age, gender, height and weight, and the calculator tells you what your body mass index, or BMI, is.

You really want to be under 25. If you’re in the 25 to 27 range, you’re borderline. If you’re above 27, you’re overweight.

If you’re above 30, you’re obese. You really don’t want to live out your life in that obese range because many diseases are associated with obesity, and heart disease is certainly at the very top of the list.

Diabetes is on the rise in America along with body weight.

You should, particularly if you’re overweight, have your blood sugar tested. If your blood sugar is elevated, then a change in lifestyle is the first thing that we do. And it usually involves weight loss.

Your body shape is important.

It turns out that there are two patterns of obesity.

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One, which is important to heart health, is abdominal obesity. It’s somebody who’s shaped like an apple — where their weight is all in their stomach. In fact, this is where most men put on weight, as opposed to the hips or thighs.

If you have that apple shape, then your waist circumference is important. You want a nice trim waist. Frankly, the lower your waist circumference, the better.

Maintaining that small waistline really is of great value. And of course, you’ll look better if you’re trim and fit as well.

Exercise is as powerful as any medication in preventing heart disease.

It doesn’t have to be excessive , but good, vigorous, physical activity — even walking — dramatically lowers the risk of heart disease.

Everybody in our society — men, women, all of us — could do with more exercise. Sitting on the couch and playing video games or watching television predisposes you to heart disease.

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