The most common risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease are hypertension, smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes, and a family history of heart disease.
"Most patients who present with a myocardial infarction or heart attack will have one or more of these risk factors," Dr. Hedgepeth explains, adding that there are lesser known connections between heart disease and such risk factors as a history of chest radiation, chronic kidney disease, obesity, and psychological stress. "Most recently, physicians have also identified the presence of positive inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein as a risk factor for coronary heart disease."
He advises few basic steps to help reduce the risk of developing heart disease and other cardiac-related conditions such as arrhythmias (heart attacks). These include:
- Quitting smoking – smoking can increase the amount of fatty material that collects in your arteries; quitting significantly drops your risk of heart disease within the first year
- Eating a heart-healthy diet that is low in saturated fats and cholesterol and rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, which helps lower cholesterol levels, blood pressure and body weight
- Exercising regularly after speaking with your primary care provider; if you've had a heart attack, he or she may recommend a cardiac rehabilitation program
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Taking any medication for blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes as directed; do not skip pills or stop taking them without first speaking to your health care provider
Another heart healthy step is reducing stress in your life. Stress management classes, relaxation techniques and exercise such as yoga can help, as can professional counseling.
"People should discuss their cardiac risk factors with their primary care physician or cardiologist at every visit, Dr. Hedgepeth says.
The family factor
One thing we cannot change in improving our heart health is genetics.
"Family history seems to be very important in understanding one's risk for developing coronary heart disease," Dr. Hedgepeth says. "Family history is an independent risk factor, especially among younger patients with a family history of premature disease."
Significant, he explains, would be whether any first-degree relative (parent or sibling) has had a heart attack before the age of 50 if male or 60 if female. This is consistent with a significant family history and should be mentioned to your primary care physician.
"The hope would be that the discussion would lead to more intensive management of the patient's modifiable cardiac risk factors," Dr. Hedgepeth says.
Treating the heart
There have been significant advances in medical and procedural therapies for cardiovascular disease, Dr. Hedgepeth explains. These include:
- Advancing efforts to develop safe, easy-to-use and effective blood thinners for coronary heart disease and atrial fibrillation patients
- Increased use of genetic testing to help physicians and patients make decisions about cardiac medications
- New cardiac valve technology that allows interventional cardiologists and cardiac surgeons to perform aortic valve replacements with a less invasive approach than traditional open heart surgery; recovery times are significantly shorter and the need for cardiac bypass can be avoided
- Ongoing clinical trials evaluating the utility of transferring stem cells to heart tissue that has been damaged after a heart attack to generate new, healthy cells and improve longevity and activity levels for patients. Researchers in labs at the Kilguss Research Institute at Women & Infants have been probing this topic for years.
- Development of a new generation of cardiac defibrillators that function without any leads (wires) in the heart and have a significantly reduced risk for infection and procedural complications