Am I in Danger of Having a Heart Attack or Stroke?

The idea of a heart attack or stroke can strike fear into the heart of even the healthiest among us. Many of us may have only witnessed a heart attack or stroke on TV, and assume that it could never happen to us. That’s far from the truth. While some people may be born with a greater risk of heart attacks and strokes, the lifestyle we lead can also have a great impact on our risk of suffering a heart attack. Here are six ways your lifestyle can seriously affect your chances:

Cholesterol

Almost every food out there has some cholesterol. Cholesterol is widely known as a bad, fat inducing, compound that you need to avoid. But, that’s not always the case. Cholesterol actually helps your body build cells, insulate nerves, and produce hormones. In the body, the liver naturally produces cholesterol for these functions. Cholesterol can also enter the body from animal based products including cheese, yogurt, and meat. It’s also important to note that there is good and bad cholesterol. Here’s how the American Heart Association defines both:

• Bad cholesterol, or LDL, is considered bad cholesterol because is causes plaque. Plaque is a hard deposit that can clog arteries and limit blood flow. With time, these deposits can cause clots to form, leading to a heart attack. The chance of clots forming can be reduced by diet, exercise, and if required, medications. Talk to your doctor beforehand about your risk for blood clots, as some blood thinning medications (used to prevent the formation of blood clots) are reported to have dangerous side effects.

• Good cholesterol, or HDL, is considered good because they help collect LDL. Think of it kind of like a vulture, picking up stray pieces of meat and bringing it back to the nest for consumption. The HDL brings LDL to the liver, where it is broken down and passed to the body. HDL lower than 40mg/dL increases your risk of heart diseases. HDL higher than 60mg/dL helps prevent heart attacks and diseases.

 

Smoking

Smoking is one of the most well known contributing factors leading to heart attack and stroke. Even a casual smoking habit puts people at a high risk for developing many other conditions, including cancer, lung diseases, and even vision loss. But many don’t understand the science behind why smoking is so dangerous. Tobacco smoke contains chemicals that are harmful to the heart and structure of blood vessels.

The nicotine in cigarettes speeds up your heart rate, leading to an irregular heart rhythm. It also reduces the HDL cholesterol in the body and restricts blood flow to other parts of the body. The side effects of smoking can lead to many other harmful bodily conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and exercise intolerance. Eventually, it can affect nearly every part of your body – eyes, mouth, reproductive organ, bones, bladder, and digestive organs to name a few. Worst of all, even secondhand smoke leads to heart attacks and death. About 22,000-69,000 people face premature deaths from heart conditions because of secondhand smoke.

 

Diabetes

Research has shown that people with diabetes share the same risk for a heart attack as people who have previously suffered from a heart attack. The increased risk is observed for people with either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. Diabetics need to maintain their blood sugar levels through exercise, diet, or medications. Be aware that some medications allegedly can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Diabetes medications can increase the risk of heart failure because it can cause hypoglycemia (lack of glucose in the body), which leads to cardiovascular mortality.

 

Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is often called the “silent killer” because it can cause damage your body for years before symptoms develop. High blood pressure forces your heart to work harder than it otherwise would to pump blood to your body. This causes your left ventricle to thicken and work harder. This condition is called Left Ventricular Hypertrophy and is very dangerous. The enlarged left ventricle can weaken, lose elasticity, prevent the heart from filling properly, and restrict blood to the coronary arteries. Over time, the strain on your heart can cause the heart muscle to weaken, wear out, and suddenly lose function. Damage from previous heart attacks also adds to this problem.

 

Physical Inactivity

This one is pretty straightforward – the more physically active you are, generally the longer your lifespan. Physical activity protects you against a myriad of long-term and chronic health problems. One study even shows that walking at least two hours a week can reduce the incidence of cardiovascular illnesses by 34%-53%. Physical activity also coincides with diabetes – exercise is thought to improve blood glucose control, which in turn reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke.

 

Alcohol

Surprisingly, if you drink one or two drinks everyday, you may have a lower risk of heart attacks and strokes than a non-drinker. It’s important to understand that this is specifically for moderate drinkers only – meaning two drinks a day for men, and one drink a day for women. While the exact reason for this is unknown, researchers suggest that it might be due to the fact that alcohol alters the blood chemistry and prevents clot formations in arteries that deliver blood to the heart.

Heavy drinking contributes to an elevated level of certain fats in the blood and binge drinking increases the risk of a heart attack by more than 70%, especially in the first hour of consuming large amounts of alcohol. In these situations, cutting back will decrease your chance for a heart attack or stroke. It is also important to remember that everyone’s body is different and you should always consult your doctor if you have any questions.

While it may sound like anything you do could contribute to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes, the important thing to take away is that you have control over your own health. Many people take blood thinners to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes, but some medications are allegedly more dangerous than others. By following a healthy diet, exercising, and avoiding smoking and binge drinking, you could live a long, healthy life.