Causes and Risks of Heart Disease

Medically reviewed by Gerhard Whitworth, RN on February 16, 2018Written by Erica Roth and Ana Gotter on August 12, 2014

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is sometimes called coronary heart disease (CHD). It’s the leading cause of death among adults in the United States. Learning about the causes and risk factors of the disease may help you avoid heart problems.

What are the causes of heart disease?

Heart disease occurs when plaque develops in the arteries and blood vessels that lead to the heart. This blocks important nutrients and oxygen from reaching your heart.

Plaque is a waxy substance made up of cholesterol, fatty molecules, and minerals. Plaque accumulates over time when the inner lining of an artery is damaged by high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, or elevated cholesterol or triglycerides.

What are the risk factors of heart disease?

Several risk factors play an important role in determining whether or not you’re likely to develop heart disease. Two of these factors, age and heredity, are out of your control.

The risk of heart disease increases around the age of 55 in women and 45 in men. Your risk may be greater if you have close family members who have a history of heart disease.

Other risk factors for heart disease include:

Unhealthy lifestyle choices

Though genetic factors can increase your risk of developing heart disease, unhealthy lifestyle choices play a big role.

Some unhealthy lifestyle choices that can contribute to heart disease include:

  • living a sedentary lifestyle and not getting enough physical exercise
  • eating an unhealthy diet that’s high in fat proteins, trans fats, sugary foods, and sodium
  • smoking
  • excessive drinking
  • staying in a high-stress environment without proper stress management techniques
  • not managing your diabetes

Link between heart disease and type 2 diabetes

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases estimates that people with type 2 diabetes — and especially those who have reached middle age — are twice as likely to have heart disease or experience a stroke as people who don’t have diabetes.

Adults with diabetes tend to have heart attacks at a younger age. They’re more likely to experience multiple heart attacks if they have insulin resistance or high blood glucose levels.

The reason for this is the relationship between glucose and blood vessel health.

High blood glucose levels that aren’t managed can increase the amount of plaque that forms within the walls of the blood vessels. This hinders or stops the flow of blood to the heart.

If you have diabetes, you can reduce the risk of heart disease by managing your blood sugar carefully. Follow a diabetes-friendly diet that’s rich in fiber and low in sugar, fat, and simple carbohydrates. Managing your blood sugar levels can also help prevent lower your risk for eye disease and circulation problems.

You should also maintain a healthy weight. And if you smoke, now’s a good time to consider quitting.

Depression and heart disease

Some studies have shown that people with depression develop heart disease at higher rates than the general population.

Depression can lead to a number of changes in your body that can increase your risk for developing heart disease or having a heart attack. Too much stress, consistently feeling sad, or both maycan elevate your blood pressure.

In addition, depression also raises your levels of a substance called C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP is a marker for inflammation in the body. Higher than normal levels of CRP have also been shown to predict heart disease.

Depression maycan also lead to a decreased interest in daily activities. This includes daily routines like exercise that are necessary to help prevent heart disease. Other unhealthy behaviors may follow, such as:

  • skipping medications
  • not putting effort into eating a healthy diet
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • smoking cigarettes

Talk with your doctor if you suspect you have depression. Professional help can get you back on the path to good health and may reduce the possibility of recurring problems.

The takeaway

Heart disease is dangerous, but it can be prevented in many cases. Everyone would benefit from maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle, but it’s particularly important for those with increased risk.

Prevent heart disease by doing the following:

  • Exercise regularly.
  • Maintain a healthy diet.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Reduce stress in your life.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Drink in moderation.
  • Get annual physical exams from your doctor to detect abnormalities and assess risk factors.
  • Take supplements, as advised by your doctor.
  • Know the warning signs of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

Living a healthy lifestyle is one of the most effective ways you can prevent heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Make preventing heart disease a priority, whether you’re in your 20s or 60s.

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