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General Health

Four Little Known Risk Factors for Heart Disease

As Heart Health Month this February comes to a close, we wanted to take a look at some of the misunderstood and not-so-well-known contributors to heart disease. Exactly how do you get heart disease? It can go far beyond just diet and physical activity.

You may already know that family history plays some role in your health. But did you know that around 80% of all heart disease occurs in people with a family history of heart problems? This means that if someone in your family has heart disease, the chances are very high that you will too. Unfortunately, this risk factor is often ignored, especially by the  young and healthy. Many people think that they can avoid this pitfall if they just watch what they eat and exercise. But even if you stay active and avoid unhealthy habits and food, you can still be at risk because of your genes. Make sure to get a blood cholesterol test done every year when you see your doctor.

Family history, air quality, depression, and sitting for long periods of time can affect heart disease

Another major factor is the air we breathe. You might be aware that smokers are at a much higher risk of heart disease than non-smokers, up to 3 times higher. In a previous article, we mentioned that anti-smoking laws can reduce heart attacks hospitalizations by 15%. But even in areas with strict anti-smoking laws, the air itself can pose a hazard. A team at Rice University found that higher ozone levels are connected to a higher risk of heart attacks. The study was performed in Houston and the city is acting by trying to provide more CPR training to bystanders, who can save lives before EMTs can arrive on the scene.

It’s not just physical health that can affect heart disease but mental health as well. An old stereotype of heart disease patients paints them as being aggressive, angry, and high-strung. But it may actually be depression that you have to watch out for. According to another study from just last week, up to 50% of patients suffering from clinical depression risk developing heart disease. And on the flip side, nearly 60% of heart disease patients suffer from clinical depression.

It all has to do with stress, and it’s unfortunately a vicious cycle of stress leading to depression and depression leading to stress which leads to heart disease which can cause depression. Clinical depression in particular tends to start in young adults, so it needs to be treated early to prevent heart disease later on. But few doctors know about this connection, which is part of an emerging interdisciplinary field called Psychocardiology. (And as with heart disease, family history plays a large part in the development of depression as well.)

So now that you’ve got the facts, you know that you’ve got to make a real effort to eat better and exercise more. But unfortunately, there’s one more recently discovered risk factor for heart disease: sitting for too long. Several other studies have found similar results in the past. This particular study found an increase in overall chronic disease related to an increase in the amount of time spent sitting. Regardless of the amount of physical activity or the BMI of the participants, those who sat for more than 4 hours a day had higher levels of chronic disease. This is especially concerning in this digital age where most office workers sit for hours at a computer.

But remember, no matter what your current risk, you can always work to reduce your future chances of developing heart disease. We’ll leave you with these basic rules for a healthy heart (modified from AHA’s essential 8):

  • be active throughout the day
  • maintain a healthy weight
  • control cholesterol and blood sugar
  • manage blood pressure
  • get an appropriate amount of sleep
  • eat a healthy diet

(And if you’re a smoker, stop smoking!)

Learn more about how certain dietary factors can affect heart disease, including vegetarian diets, salt, and chocolate!