11 common risk factors for a heart attack and what you can do to mitigate them

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About 47% of all Americans have at least one risk factor that raises their chances of having a heart attack.¹ If you have coronary artery disease, or a buildup of plaque in your heart’s arteries that can significantly increase your risk of having a heart attack.² Risk factors for developing heart disease are typically sorted into one of three categories: major risk factors, modifiable risk factors, or contributing risk factors.³

Major risk factors are things like getting older, which you can’t control. Modifiable risk factors typically include lifestyle choices that you have control over, and modifiable risk factors may include other illnesses, which can contribute to the development of heart disease and can sometimes be controlled with medication. Some of the most common risk factors for coronary artery disease or heart disease are:

1. Age

Your risk of developing heart disease increases as you get older. Aging is considered a major risk factor for heart disease and people who are over 65 are high risk for heart disease whether they have any other risk factors or not.⁴ Getting your blood pressure checked at least once per year is recommended, if your blood pressure is less than 120/80 mm Hg., it is also recommended to have your weight and body mass reviewed during your regular healthcare visits, cholesterol screenings every four to six years, and blood glucose tests every three years.⁵

2. Sex

Typically, men are more likely to develop heart disease than women, although women are less likely to recognize the signs of a heart attack. Women’s chances of developing heart disease increase substantially after menopause⁶, especially if they have other risk factors. According to the CDC, approximately 1 in 16 women over 20 have at least some coronary disease. Heart disease is also the number one cause of death for both white women and African American women.⁷

3. Physical inactivity

Physical inactivity or having a sedentary lifestyle is typically one of the modifiable risk factors for heart disease. Over the years more and more people have been working at jobs that have them sitting in front of a computer and commuting long hours by train or in cars where they are sitting. You can help mitigate this risk factor just by moving more. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Get up from your desk and walk for five or ten minutes every hour, even if you’re walking in place. The more you move the more likely you will help lower your risk of heart disease. 

4. High stress

Modern life is inherently stressful. Trying to balance your career and family and dealing with commuting and all the other stresses that pile up during the day can likely increase your chances of developing heart disease. You may not realize how damaging stress can be to your health. It can cause weight gain, high blood pressure, insomnia, and other health problems that can also contribute to heart disease⁸. Lowering your stress levels by trying to get regular exercise, getting more sleep, and meditating or finding a hobby that is relaxing can likely help get rid of some of that stress so you can be healthier. 

5. Unhealthy diet

Diet is another modifiable risk factor. Eating a healthy diet doesn’t mean you can’t ever have pizza or a great steak. It means that most of the time you need to eat a balanced diet and eat moderate portions. A healthy diet can also help you maintain a healthy weight and can also help lower your risk of getting heart disease. 

6. High cholesterol 

High cholesterol isn’t really a modifiable risk factor for heart disease because heredity can play a role in how much cholesterol your body makes but there are some lifestyle changes you can make that can help lower your cholesterol and if prescribed by your primary doctor, there may be medications that you can take to try and manage it. There are two kinds of cholesterol that the body makes. One is good, and the other is not good because it can clog the arteries in and around the heart and cause heart attacks. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the “good” cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the cholesterol that you want to keep in check. 

7. Diabetes

Diabetes is becoming increasingly common. In 2018 it was estimated that more than 34 million adults in the U.S. had diabetes.⁹ Sedentary lifestyles and poor diets are contributing to this epidemic of obesity and those lifestyle factors can also increase your chances of developing heart disease. 

8. Family history

Heart disease can be hereditary, or at least having a propensity towards heart disease can be hereditary. If there is a history of heart disease in one or both of your parents’ families then you are likely to have a strong chance of developing heart disease as well. Having a hereditary link to heart disease doesn’t necessarily mean you will get heart disease but it does mean that you should pay close attention to your heart health and get regular blood pressure checkups, weight and body mass, cholesterol, and blood glucose screenings. If needed, a combination of prescribed medication and a healthy lifestyle can help give you the best chance of avoiding a heart attack. 

9. Smoking

Aside from dramatically increasing your chances of getting lung cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), smoking also raises your risk of having a heart attack and getting heart disease. 

10. High blood pressure

High blood pressure puts an extreme strain on the heart as it struggles to move blood throughout the body. High blood pressure can help contribute to a heart attack by forcing the heart to work harder and harder until the heart stops working. You can take steps to help lower your blood pressure like being more active and eating balanced meals but many people are likely to need medication to help manage chronic high blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure you should be seeing a doctor regularly and having regular stress tests done to make sure your heart is healthy.

11. Being overweight 

Another significant risk factor for having a heart attack is being overweight or obese. There are several health problems that can come from carrying a lot of extra weight including heart disease. Carrying extra weight can put strain on your heart and can also cause conditions like high blood pressure. Losing weight if you’re overweight or maintaining a healthy weight can help lower your risk of developing heart disease. 

How to prevent a heart attack

There is nothing you can do to totally prevent a heart attack, especially if you have a family history of heart disease or heart attacks. But seeing a doctor and getting medication for conditions like high cholesterol and high blood pressure can help lower your risk. Being more active, managing stress, and eating a healthy diet can also help lower your risk of having a heart attack. 

What are the signs of a heart attack?

Sometimes the symptoms can be so strong they’re unmistakable but at other times the symptoms may feel like just normal aches and pains or even gas. Common symptoms of a heart attack that you should pay attention to include are¹⁰:

  • Pressure, tightness, pain, or a squeezing or aching sensation in your chest or arms that may spread to your neck, jaw, or back

  • Nausea, indigestion, heartburn, or abdominal pain

  • Shortness of breath

  • Cold sweat

  • Fatigue

  • Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness

For women, the symptoms of a heart attack can be different. Some of the most common symptoms of heart attack in women are¹¹:

  • Flu like symptoms that might last a day or two

  • Shortness of breath

  • Upper back pressure or pain

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

What happens when you have a heart attack? 

If you suspect that you’re having a heart attack you should immediately call for emergency help. When you get to the emergency room, you are likely to be put on IV fluids and receive a full physical exam, and EKG, and other tests to help determine if you are having or did have a heart attack. You may need more specialized care like a heart catherization or even surgery. You may probably be admitted to the hospital for at least a brief stay so that doctors and medical staff can monitor your condition. 

Paying for care after a heart attack

No one can predict when a heart attack will hit. If you have a heart attack and you need to miss work for several days or even several weeks how will you pay for deductible for your health insurance and tests or medications that aren’t covered by your insurance? What about the bill for the ambulance or for your hospital room? And while you’re not working how are you going to pay your bills like your rent or mortgage and your utilities? 

How critical illness insurance can help you pay for costs associated with a heart attack

Critical illness insurance is a type of supplemental health insurance. It can help you cover out-of-pocket medical expenses that your primary health insurance plan doesn’t cover. 

Critical illness insurance pays a lump sum cash benefit if you or a family member experience a covered critical illness, including a heart attack or stroke. Once your diagnosis is verified, your insurance company will pay out a lump sum cash benefit depending on the type of illness. 

Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice. This is not dental care advice and should not be substituted for regular consultation with your dentist. If you have any concerns about your dental health, please contact your dentist's office.

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  1. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm, 2020 

  2. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/understand-your-risks-to-prevent-a-heart-attack, 2016 

  3. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/understand-your-risks-to-prevent-a-heart-attack, 2016

  4. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/heart-health-and-aging, 2018

  5. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/consumer-healthcare/what-is-cardiovascular-disease/heart-health-screenings, 2019

  6. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/heart\_vascular\_institute/centers\_excellence/women\_cardiovascular\_health\_center/patient\_information/health\_topics/menopause\_cardiovascular\_system.html, accessed 2020

  7. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/women.htm, 2020 

  8. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=2171, accessed 2020

  9. https://www.diabetes.org/resources/statistics/statistics-about-diabetes, 2020 

  10. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-attack/symptoms-causes/syc-20373106, 2020

  11. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/warning-signs-of-a-heart-attack/heart-attack-symptoms-in-women, 2015

Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice.(exp.09/22)