Like all of the other tissues and organs in the body, the heart needs a constant supply of oxygen-rich blood to survive. If the blood supply to the heart is suddenly interrupted, the heart muscles may be damaged
Left untreated, the heart muscle will experience irreversible damage. Risk factors for heart attack relate to coronary heart disease (CHD) and its development.
There are certain things that increase your risk of developing coronary heart disease. These are called risk factors and include:
High blood pressure
If your blood pressure is consistently higher than it should be, it is called high blood pressure (or hypertension).
High blood pressure is not a disease in itself. However, it can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and strokes. Over the years, high blood pressure slowly damages the blood vessels by making them narrower and more rigid. This means that your heart has to work harder to push the blood through your blood vessels, and the overall blood pressure rises, making it easier for clots to get caught and for fatty debris (atheroma) to block your blood vessels. This is what happens in heart attacks and strokes.
High cholesterol level
When the cholesterol level in your blood is high, it contributes to the fatty build-up in the lining of your blood vessels, called atheroma, which increases your risk of heart disease and strokes.
Most doctors use risk assessment charts to help identify your risk in terms of how likely you are to develop heart or stroke problems in the future. Based on your other risk factors, your doctor will decide what cholesterol level is safe for you.
Diabetes is one of the major risk factors for heart disease and stroke.
People who have diabetes are between 2 and 5 times more likely to develop heart disease and stroke than people who do not.
Uncontrolled diabetes contributes to damage to the blood vessels and the build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.
People who have Type 2 diabetes are more likely to have high LDL ('bad') cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
People who have Type 2 diabetes are also more likely to have high blood pressure – another risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
If you already have other cardiovascular risk factors, your risks multiply. The good news is that there are things you can do to control your diabetes and reduce your cardiovascular risks.
The toxins that are contained in cigarettes both narrow the carotid arteries and damage them, which makes people who smoke more vulnerable to coronary heart disease. When you smoke, about 4,000 chemicals are released. These include at least 80 cancer-causing chemicals, hundreds of poisons and nicotine (a highly addictive drug). If you have a heart condition, smoking may make your symptoms worse.
Smoking makes the smooth lining of blood vessels rough. This encourages the build up of atheroma, the fatty material that narrows and blocks blood vessels.
Smoking increases the amount of fibrinogen (blood thickening agent) in the blood and makes it stickier. This increases the chance of blood clots forming that can cause heart attacks and strokes.
Smoking also increases blood pressure, speeds up the heart and increases the likelihood of heart disease, strokes and many cancers. It also damages the lungs, causing chronic lung disease.
The good news is that from the moment you stop smoking, the risks to your health start to decline.
Learn some effective ways to stop smoking
Not getting enough exercise
Getting more exercise can:
- increase your exercise tolerance which enables you to do more as you become fitter
- help lower cholesterol levels
- help lower high blood pressure
- help you lose weight
- keep you supple and more mobile
- strengthen your muscles, joints and bones
- reduce tension, encourage relaxation and promote sleep
- give you a sense of wellbeing and confidence
- help reduce anxiety and depression
Remember that the heart is a muscle and it needs to be exercised to keep it strong. When you are sitting still, it hardly has to work at all. The less you do, the less you are able to do.
Find out more about keeping active
Being overweight increases the work the heart has to do, contributes to high blood pressure, and may lead to abnormal levels of fat in the blood. It is also associated with diabetes, respiratory disease, gall bladder problems and some cancers.
Being able to control your weight and keep it within healthy levels can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and prevent chronic disease from worsening. It is a good idea to be as close as you can to your ideal weight. This is best achieved by controlling your weight through a balance of eating healthily and keeping as active as you can.
Your body mass Index (BMI) and your waist measurement are both accurate ways of assessing if your weight is within the normal range.
Find out how to measure your BMI
Drinking too much alcohol
It is important to moderate your alcohol intake as drinking heavily increases your blood pressure, affects your cholesterol level and can make you gain weight.
Binge drinking, that is drinking large amounts over a short period of time, is particularly harmful.
In the UK, a unit of alcohol is equivalent to 8g or 10mls of pure alcohol. The strength of alcohol is measured by the percentage of alcohol by volume (%ABV).
- There is 1 unit of alcohol in a single measure (25mls) of spirit of 37.5% vol.
- There are 1.5 units of alcohol in one small glass (125mls) wine or champagne of 12% vol.
- There is 1 unit of alcohol in half a pint of standard strength (3.5% vol) beer or lager.
Some people still think that 1 drink = 1 unit. This is not true! Remember, it is the strength and size of a drink that determines how many units it contains. You have to read the label to be accurate. Home measures are often more generous than those in a pub or restaurant. For example, a large 440ml bottle or can of strong beer (6.5%) has 3 units of alcohol in it.
Find out how to drink alcohol reponsibly
There are some key changes you can make to your eating patterns which have been proven to be of benefit in reducing your risk of stroke.
Some of these changes particularly apply to people with contributing factors such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Eating a healthier diet may only involve making small changes in meals you already eat – eating a little more of some things and less of others.
A healthy varied diet should include foods from all food groups – carbohydrates (such as pasta, rice, potatoes, root vegetables and bread), proteins (such as meat, eggs, fish and poultry), dairy products, fruit and vegetables.
The general healthy-eating message is to:
- eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables each day
- increase the intake of fibre in your diet
- reduce the fat in your diet, replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats or oils.
- eat less sugar
- moderate your salt intake
- check the food labels – this gets you used to knowing what is in the food you are eating
More about eating a healthy balanced diet
Some recreational drugs – like cocaine, amphetamines (speed) and ecstasy – can cause your blood pressure to rise. Some recreational drugs can increase your blood pressure, and many illegal drugs and so-called ‘legal highs’ affect the heart.
As well as lots of other effects on your brain and body, they can cause raised blood pressure, increased heart rate and an irregular heartbeat. Cocaine causes your coronary arteries to constrict, raising your blood pressure and reducing the blood supply to your heart. During the first hour after cocaine use, the risk of a heart attack increases by nearly 24 times. The risk of heart disease amongst cocaine users is compounded by other risk factors, including smoking and drinking excess alcohol – the combination of all 3 can be a lethal cocktail.
More about drug misuse
Other risk factors
You may be one of the people who does not have any of these risk factors but still develops heart disease. You may have other genetic factors (that is, passed on through families) that may increase the likelihood of you developing coronary heart disease. Other risk factors are known to affect the chance of developing coronary heart disease. These include age and being male or female.
If a close member of your family has been affected by coronary heart disease, you should do everything possible to reduce your risk of heart disease. It is also important that your doctor carries out a cardiovascular (CVD) risk assessment on you to find out any specific risk factors that you may have.
Rates of high blood pressure and diabetes are higher in people of African and Afro-Caribbean descent, which means that they also have an increase risk of CHD and heart attacks.
People of South Asian descent (those of Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Sri Lankan origin) are 5 times more likely to develop diabetes compared to the population at large. Again, this also increases their risks of CHD and heart attacks.