Unexpected Heart Disease Risk Factors

Bad gums, lack of sleep may be related to heart health
closeup of woman brushing teeth

You’ve probably heard the warnings about risk factors and heart disease, but there are lesser-known risk factors that don’t make the usual list of suspects.

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Unexpected risk factors

Here are some risk factors that have been observed in people who also had heart disease or other cardiovascular issues:

  • Poor dental care: Observational studies have noted that people with heart disease also tend to have bad gums. The exact relationship remains unproven. The plaque that accumulates on your teeth is not the same plaque that clogs your coronary arteries; regardless, good dental hygiene is important, particularly if you have been diagnosed with a heart murmur. So, take care of your teeth by brushing and flossing daily and visiting the dentist regularly.
  • Air pollution: Studies have shown a link between air pollution and cardiovascular disease. If you live in a city with poor air quality, limit your time outdoors and your exercise outside during rush hour.
  • Noise pollution: You may benefit from scheduling some quiet time if you live or work in a noisy environment. One study suggests louder traffic is connected to a higher risk of stroke.
  • Lack of sleep: Poor sleep contributes to many risk factors that may lead to heart disease, such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes.
  • Sleep apnea: Those who have sleep apnea are at a higher risk for high blood pressure, arrhythmias, cardiovascular disease, stroke and heart failure.
  • Migraines: Women who have migraines with aura (visual disturbances like flashing lights) are at a slightly higher risk for heart disease.
  • High BMI: Having a mother who had a high BMI (body mass index) during pregnancy is a risk factor.
  • PTSD or stress: Having post-traumatic stress or chronic stress is linked to heart disease.
  • Autoimmune diseases: Having rheumatoid arthritis or another autoimmune disease is a risk factor, as inflammation helps develop plaque that blocks arteries.

Take this warning to heart

“Stories often surface in the media about ‘secret’ or ‘little-known’ warning signs for heart disease,” says cardiac surgeon A. Marc Gillinov, MD, author of Heart 411. He says it’s important to focus on a few important points:

  1. Finding a coincidental occurrence and proving a meaningful, causal link are two distinctly different things. All of these risk factors are linked to heart disease but we are still not sure if they cause heart disease.
  2. Even with all of these new and interesting risk factors, the most important thing is to not forget the risk factors that we know can make a difference.

Dr. Gillinov continues, “Amidst all the focus on newfound risk factors, high blood pressure (a key cause of heart disease and stroke and a major killer in the United States) fades into the background.”

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Well-known risk factors

As a reminder, here are some better-known, proven risk factors for heart disease and heart attack:

  • Increasing age, for both men and women.
  • Strong family history of heart disease.
  • A history of clogged arteries that required surgery or stents to reopen them (including prior heart attack or peripheral artery disease).
  • High blood pressure.
  • Diabetes.
  • High levels of “bad” blood cholesterol.
  • Smoking cigarettes.
  • Being overweight.
  • Sedentary (lack of exercise) lifestyle.

Take charge of your heart health

If you’re still wondering how these risk factors affect you, you can assess your risk of coronary heart disease: Take the test.

Whether you have one or more of the well-known risk factors or those that are unexpected, Dr. Gillinov states, “The most important thing you can do is take charge of your heart health. For starters, that means exercising, eating a healthy diet and quitting smoking.”

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