According to Mayo Clinic, heart disease is the number 1 worldwide killer of men and women.  It is responsible for 40 percent of all deaths in the United States.  This is more deaths than all forms of cancer combined.

Often we don’t worry about heart disease because we think we aren’t at risk.  We assume that a man is much more likely to die of heart disease, or we think it can be cured with medicines, surgeries, or other procedures.

Risk factors are behaviors or conditions that increase the chance of disease.  While there are some risk factors that you cannot control, it is important to control those that can be modified.

Factors you cannot control

•Age

Simply getting older increases your risk for damaged or narrowed arteries and weakened or thickened heart muscle;  this contributes to heart disease.

•Gender

Men are generally at risk for heart disease at an earlier age, after 45.  In women the risk increases after age 55; however, over the last 20 years, the rates of heart attack have been increasing for women aged 35-54.

•Race

African Americans have more severe high blood pressure than Caucasians and therefore have a higher risk of heart disease.  Heart disease risk is also higher among Hispanics, American Indians, native Hawaiians, and some Asian Americans.

Family history.  Family history of early heart disease—a father or brother diagnosed before age 55 or a mother or sister diagnosed before 65—puts you at a greater risk.

Factors you can control

•Tobacco 

Nicotine constricts blood vessels and carbon monoxide can damage their inner lining.  Smoking and long-term exposure to secondhand smoke damage the interior walls of arteries, allowing deposits of cholesterol and other substances to collect and slow blood flow.  Smoking also increases the risk of deadly blood clots forming and causing a heart attack.

•Diabetes 

Diabetes is the inability of your body to adequately produce or respond to insulin properly.  Diabetes greatly increases your risk of a heart attack.

•Obesity   

People who have excess body fat—especially if most of it is at the waist—are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke, even if they have no other risk factors.  Excess weight increases the heart’s work.

•High blood pressure

Uncontrolled high blood pressure can result in hardening and thickening of your arteries, narrowing the vessels through which blood can flow. 

•Physical inactivity

An inactive lifestyle contributes to high blood cholesterol levels and obesity.  People who get regular aerobic exercise have better cardiovascular fitness, which decreases their overall risk of heart attack.  Exercise is also beneficial in lowering high blood pressure.

•Poor diet

A diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol can contribute to heart disease.  A poor diet is also usually one low in fruit and vegetable consumption.

•Uncontrolled stress or anger:

A person may respond to stress in ways that can increase their risk of a heart attack.  A person who is under stress may overeat or smoke from nervous tension.  Too much stress, as well as anger, can also raise blood pressure.

•Alcohol

Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure, cause heart failure and led to stroke.  It contributes to obesity, alcoholism, suicide and accidents.  The risk of heart disease in people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol (an average of one drink for women and two drinks for men per day) is lower than in nondrinkers.

•Poor hygiene 

Regularly washing your hands and other habits like getting enough sleep can prevent viral or bacterial infections that can put you at risk for heart infections.  Researchers also believe poor dental health may contribute to heart disease.  Germs on your teeth and gums can travel from your mouth to your heart, potentially worsening coronary artery disease.

Heart disease is easier to treat when it is detected early.  Having multiple risk factors for heart disease is serious because they tend to “gang up” and worsen each other’s effects.  So, look at the risk factors you can control and consider controlling them before it’s too late.

Rita Hodges is with the County Extension Agent-Family & Consumer Sciences Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, located at 701 S. I-35 E in Waxahachie, TX  75165. She can be reached at 972-825-5175 or rmhodges@ag.tamu.edu. Educational programs of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, genetic information or veteran status. The Texas A&M University System, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the County Commissioners Courts of Texas Cooperating.