Factors You Cannot Control
We can do a lot to lower our individual risk of developing coronary artery disease, but some risk factors are ones we're stuck with. It's important to be aware of them.
Age and Gender
It's common sense that if plaque buildup occurs over time, CAD becomes more of a possibility as we get older. Women develop CAD on average at age 55. That's about a decade later than men do. CAD is the most common kind of heart disease among both men and women in the United States, yet men are 50 percent more likely than women to die of CAD.
Some degree of CAD is almost inevitable, with the condition identifiable in more than 80 percent of adults over age 80. Changes that occur in the body as we age create optimal conditions for heart disease to gain a foothold. For instance, as we age, the smooth vessel wall naturally develops a rough surface that attracts plaque deposits.
Black men and women in the United States are 30 percent more likely to die of heart disease, including coronary artery disease, than whites. Whites have a significantly higher death rate from heart disease than non-white Hispanic men and women.
Other Genetic Factors
Heart disease may run in the family, or you may inherit type 1 diabetes or some other disease or trait that increases CAD risk.
Factors You Can Control
Fortunately, many risk factors for CAD are well within our control. According to the American Heart Association, there are six major risk factors you can change.
Even if you have no other risk factors, smoking, by itself, increases your risk of CAD. If you have coexisting risk factors, your CAD risk rises exponentially. It's especially dangerous to smoke if you have a family history of heart disease or if you take birth control pills.
High LDL (bad) cholesterol or low HDL (good) cholesterol is more than just a test result filed away in your medical chart. These factors can denote a serious risk for CAD. If you have trouble keeping straight which kind of cholesterol is good and which is bad, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute suggests a nifty way to remember; when you hear the "L" in LDL, think "lousy" and "lower." When you hear the "H" in HDL, think "healthy" and "higher."
Your LDL reading should be less than 100 milligrams of cholesterol per deciliter of blood (mg/dL). Your HDL cholesterol level should be at least 40 mg/dL. You should also keep an eye on your triglycerides, a type of fat circulating in your blood. Your triglyceride level should stay below 150 mg/dL. The amount of triglyceride is related to sugar intake. You can reduce your triglycerides by reducing your intake of sugary substances.
High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)
Blood pressure is a measurement of how much resistance the vessels offer as your heart pumps blood through them. Over time, high blood pressure can cause the coronary arteries to narrow and stiffen. Your blood pressure should consistently remain at or below 120/80 mmHg.
Exercise helps lower your risk of CAD by lowering blood pressure, raising HDL cholesterol, and strengthening your heart so it works more efficiently. It also helps you maintain a healthy weight and reduces your risk for other diseases (such as obesity and diabetes) that might lead to CAD.
Overweight or Obese
The terms "overweight" and "obese" are more than unflattering adjectives; they're medical diagnoses. Being overweight or obese increases CAD risk dramatically. Furthermore, carrying too much weight often goes hand-in-hand with high blood pressure or diabetes, and it's directly related to poor diet and physical activity habits.
The names overweight and obesity are usually defined in terms of body mass index (BMI). Your BMI, a measure of weight to height, should stay between 18.5 and 24.9. A BMI of 25 or greater, especially if you carry your weight around your midsection, increases CAD risk. Women and men should have a waist circumference of no more than 35 and 40 inches, respectively. Catching a glimpse of yourself stepping out of the shower is all you probably need to determine whether you're too chunky, but you should know your BMI. Use an online BMI tool or ask your healthcare provider to calculate the number for you.
Diabetes is a condition in which there is too much glucose in the blood because the body can't use insulin properly or can't make enough insulin. Type 2 diabetes is often accompanied by other risk factors for CAD, primarily obesity. Your fasting blood glucose should be less than 100 mg/dL, and your HbA1c, an average measure of blood glucose control over a period of three months, should be less than 7 percent. Any higher on either count and you run a greater risk of CAD.