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Believe it or not, your body actually needs cholesterol to function properly. But too much can build up in your blood vessels and block the flow of blood to vital organs. The result? A heart attack or stroke.
Cholesterol is a naturally occurring substance made by your liver from saturate fat. Some cholesterol also comes from animal protein: meat, eggs and dairy products.
In the body, cholesterol takes two forms: HDL, what we call good cholesterol; and LDL, or bad cholesterol. The combination of these two types makes up your body's total cholesterol. Your measurement will fall into one of these three categories:
Total cholesterol of less than 200 mg/dL means your heart attack risk is relatively low, unless you have other risk factors. Nearly half the adult population is in this group.
Having your cholesterol measured is easy -- it's just a blood test. And you should have it done at least every five years if it has been relatively stable in the desirable range; more often if you're a man over 45 or a woman over 55.
Borderline High Risk
If your cholesterol level is between 200 and 239 mg/dL, you're considered borderline high risk, along with roughly one-third of American adults. Have your cholesterol checked every one or two years, or more frequently if your doctor suggests it.
With a total cholesterol level of 240 or higher, your risk of heart attack and stroke is double that of those in the desirable group. Your doctor will suggest ways to reduce your levels and will want to check your cholesterol more frequently.
Learn more about cholesterol and its effect on your heart.
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Cigarette smoking is the single most preventable cause of death in the United States. Its links to heart disease, peripheral arterial disease, cancer, stroke, emphysema and other major health problems is undeniable. On average, nearly 450,000 people die each year from cigarette-related causes.
Smoking accelerates coronary plaque development that can block blood flow to your heart. Nicotine and carbon monoxide, the two main poisons found in cigarette smoke, also rob your heart of the oxygen it needs to function properly.
Learn more about the risks of smoking and what you can do to quit now.
Even if you eat healthy, don't smoke and get plenty of exercise, you may still be at risk. Your family history may indicate a genetic predisposition for heart disease, high cholesterol or triglyceride levels, high blood pressure or other heart problems.
If your family has a history of heart disease or any serious condition, you owe it to yourself to be informed and continue to monitor your health through regular doctor visits. Especially if you smoke, don't get enough physical activity or have other risk factors for heart disease.
Learn how genetics play a role in heart disease.
High blood pressure causes the heart to work harder than normal, and can increase your risk of heart attack, congestive heart failure, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), or other serious health problems. Factors that affect high blood pressure include diet and lifestyle, family history, race (African Americans are at greater risk than others), aging and gender (men are more likely than women to have high blood pressure until age 55; women are at higher risk after age 75).
Normal adult blood pressure is 120/80. The top number, called systolic pressure, measures the force as your arteries expand. The bottom number, called diastolic pressure, measures the pressure as arteries relax.
Hypertension is anything from 121-139 systolic and 81-89 diastolic. High blood pressure is anything over 140 systolic or 90 diastolic.
Learn more about high blood pressure.
Known as hardening of the arteries, atherosclerosis is the buildup of plaque on artery walls. This slow, complex disease starts in childhood and often progresses as we age when deposits of plaque begin to restrict the flow of blood, sometimes leading to heart attack or stroke.
Plaque buildup is most often caused by elevated levels of cholesterol and triglycerides (fatty acids) in the blood, smoking and high blood pressure.
Other resources about atherosclerosis.
Maintaining a healthy weight is important to keep your heart functioning properly. Studies show carrying extra weight increases your risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke. Further, poor diet contributes to higher cholesterol levels and high blood pressure.
For men, a waist of more than 40 inches is considered high risk. For women, more than 35 inches. Your Body Mass Index (BMI: Calculate yours here) -- a measure of body fat relative to your height -- can indicate your risk as well.
What you can do now to lose weight and feel great.
According to recent research, one glass of wine or beer per day can improve arterial elasticity along with other health benefits. But drinking more than that can erode those benefits and even lead to a host of other unhealthy side effects, including high blood pressure, stroke and liver damage.
Stress and its link with heart disease are still under scrutiny. However, researchers have determined that stress does cause certain changes in both behavior and body function.
We do know that stress can cause blood pressure to rise. When you're under stress, you also may be more likely to eat, drink to excess or smoke. Those who feel pressured for time may exercise less. Also a body under stress produces unhealthy levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
Below are some common stress-inducing situations:
Learn more about the effects of stress on your heart.
Though men still stand a greater chance of suffering a heart attack, more women die of cardiovascular disease than any other cause of death -- about 500,000 women each year.
What's more, women are six times more likely to die from a heart attack than from breast cancer.
Learn more, and join the American Heart Association's Go Red For Women campaign.
Another source: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease
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