Major risk factors for heart disease – how do you get heart disease?

Heart disease risk factorsRisk factors are those things you do or conditions you may be suffering from that increase your chances of getting a particular disease.

What causes heart disease?

High blood cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is produced by the liver and is used for various things in the body.The liver produces cholesterol which is then carried as LDH (low density lipoprotein) or HDL (high density lipoprotein). HDL actually removes cholesterol from the blood so that it doesn’t build up on the walls of your arteries. When there is too much cholesterol in the blood it is laid down on the inner walls of the arteries causing narrowing and eventually blockage. This cuts off blood supply to the affected part of the body, the coronary arteries of the heart this would lead to a heart attack.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure is a condition in which the force of the blood in the arteries is too high. This increases the risk for heart disease.


This is a condition in which the body doesn’t make enough insulin or cannot use the insulin that it does produce because the cells have lost the ability to respond to it.
(Insulin is an important hormone for processing sugars in the body.) When this happens, the processing of fats and protein in the body are also affected. About 3/4 of diabetics die from heart disease or disease of the blood vessels.


One of the worst things you can do to yourself in terms of trying to stay healthy is to smoke. If you smoke you are 2-6 times more likely to develop heart disease than someone who doesn’t. The more cigarettes you smoke, the higher the risk.
Smoking also increases your chances of getting various cancers including cancers of the mouth, lung, cervix and urinary tract.

Low tar and low nicotine cigarettes are no safer than regular cigarettes. The only way to improve your health is to stop smoking!

Unhealthy diet

If you eat a diet that is high in saturated fats and cholesterol, your risk of developing heart disease are increased.
A diet high in salt increases the blood pressure which increases heart disease risk.

Lack of exercise

Not being physically active increases your heart disease risk. It also influences some of the other risk factors for heart disease such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity and HDL levels.


This is associated with low HDL levels and high LDH levels. It also increases the risk for diabetes and hypertension.


If your close relative, e.g. one of your parents or a brother or sister has heart disease, then your chances of developing heart disease are also increased.

More about cholesterol

High blood cholesterol levels are an important risk factor for developing heart disease and unlike inherited you can do something about it.

You need cholesterol

Cholesterol is not some evil stuff that you have to flush out of your system at all costs. Cholesterol is important for your body to function. It forms part of the walls of the cells in the body. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view), your body makes enough cholesterol for all needs so you don’t actually need to eat much of it. So what happens to all that extra fat that you eat? Over time it’s laid down in the walls of your arteries including those that supply blood to your heart, brain and kidneys. (It’s also laid down around your middle, amongst other places, as fat but I’m sure you know that already.)

As the arteries get narrower and narrower, they may eventually get blocked. No blood gets through and this leads to an ischaemic stroke if it’s in the brain and a heart attack if it happens in the heart.

Cholesterol levels

Cholesterol travels around the blood combined with substances called lipoproteins:

  1. Low density lipoproteins (LDL or bad cholesterol) – this carries most of the cholesterol in the body.
  2. High density lipoproteins (HDH or good cholestrol) – this removes cholesterol from the blood so that it’s not deposited on the walls of the arteries.
  3. Another type of fat you need to look out for are triglycerides.

This means that you want lots of HDL and as little LDL as possible.

Cholesterol levels vary in women according to their age:

  1. below age 45 cholesterol in women is lower than in men
  2. between age 45 and 55, cholesterol levels begin to be higher than in men
  3. above 55 the gap in cholesterol levels increase even more with levels in women rising even more.

Exercise boosts “good” cholesterol

If you’re not exercising already, here’s another good reason to do so. According to a report published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a review of previously-published studies showed that aerobic exercise (the kind that gets your heart pumping fast) can help increase the levels of “good” (HDL) cholesterol in your body. The increase was greatest in people who were obese and those with high cholesterol.
Unfortunately a couple of jumping jacks are not going to do the trick! Apparently, you need to exercise for at least 30 minutes at a go and for a total of 2 hours a week to get the full benefits.

What kind of exercises should I do?

Exercise and good cholesterolSome examples:

  • walking
  • jogging
  • skipping (jumping rope)
  • swimming
  • cycling

The good news is that:

  1. the intensity of the exercise was less important than the duration, i.e. you can exercise gently and still enjoy the benefits, and
  2. you don’t have to go on any special diet (though you are watching what you eat already, right?)

Why the fuss about HDL?

HDL has a protective effect on the heart and blood vessels. Higher levels of HDL decrease your risk of developing cardiovascular disease (heart disease, strokes e.t.c.). When you combine this with other lifestyle changes it can make a big difference.
There a drugs that can raise you HDL levels much higher than aerobic exercise, but if you’re looking for drug-free options, this may be the way to go.

Can chocolate prevent heart disease in postmenopausal women?

chocolate, heart diseaseScientists at the University of East Anglia in the UK are carrying out a study to see if chocolate can reduce the risk of developing heart disease in post-menopausal women with type 2 diabetes.
Chocolate is made out of cocoa which is rich in substances called flavonoids which are thought to be good for the heart. Unfortunately, the process of making chocolate removes a large amount of flavonoids from the cocoa. To make up for this, a special type of chocolate in which much of the flavonoids have been retained will be used for the study. Soybeans which is also rich in flavonoids will be added to the chocolate. The women taking part in the study will be asked to eat a bar of chocolate every day for a year.
After menopause, women’s heart disease risk increases and equals that of men. However, more studies are carried out in men than in women. In addition, having diabetes increases the risk of developing heart disease three-fold.
It is hoped that an increased intake of flavonoids coupled with the use of medication can reduce the risk of heart disease in vulnerable women.

Post-menopausal? Soy nuts may lower your blood pressure

Are you post-menopausal? Do you have high blood pressure? Well, help may be at hand. A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that blood pressure was reduced by eating soy. 60 healthy post-menopausal women who took part in the study were divided into 2 groups. Both groups had identical healthy diets, the only difference being that one group had part of its protein intake replaced by half a cup of unsalted soy nuts. After 8 weeks, in the soy group, blood pressure was significantly reduced in the 12 women who had hypertension and also in those that had normal blood pressure.
Soy for high blood pressure As an added bonus, levels of “bad” cholesterol were also lower in women that had hypertension.
This particularly important for post-menopausal women who are hypertensive because they have 4 times the risk of developing heart disease as those with normal blood pressure. Just goes to show what an impact small changes to your diet can have on your health – yet another good reason to start eating soy!

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