Heart health risk factors have been written about for decades, and the beauty of being a cardiologist is that I’m both a teacher and I’m a student. At many conferences I attend, I’m the one presenting. But quite often, I’m the one listening and learning—and often gain new cutting edge information that’s several years ahead of the curve. In fact, the information I gain at conferences is often a year ahead of the journals and three years ahead of books.
At this point, there are more than a dozen or so risk factors that can trigger inflammation of the cardiac blood vessels, creating plaque formation. Plus, since the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, at least a dozen or so more genetic risk factors have been added to that list.
I wanted to take this opportunity to distill this long list of risk factors down for you—and simplify it. Here the top five heart health risk factors you want to watch for in 2016 based on the newest research, the history of cardiovascular risks, and my own clinical experience treating thousands of patients.
1. Smoking: Hands down the top risk factor for both men and women is smoking—and it’s not just due to the nicotine content. With each puff of a cigarette, you’re inhaling up to 4,000 chemicals, including insecticides, pesticides, and carbon monoxide. All of those chemicals cause inflammation, which is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease. Here are my top tips for quitting smoking.
2. Blood Pressure: The single biggest heart health risk factor for women is high blood pressure. The reason is that women have smaller blood vessels in the heart than men, making them more vulnerable to high blood pressure and inflammation of the blood vessels. They are also more prone to diastolic dysfunction of the heart resulting from higher blood pressure. So, with women we want to be even more aggressive in treating high blood pressure than we are with men. For men, blood pressure is still a very serious risk factor, but since women have a different anatomy and typically use more NSAIDS than men, it’s an even bigger concern. Here’s my four week plan to lower your blood pressure naturally.
3. Acute Emotional Stress: While stress is a heart health risk factor for both men and women, it’s especially risky for aggressive, hostile Type A men and vitally exhausted women. Acute emotional stress kills. I can’t tell you how many plaque rupture heart attacks I have seen in situations of acute “fight or flight” stress. Trust me, there’s nothing worth dying for. Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff anyway. I learned that from one of my mentors, Dr. Robert Elliott. For emotional stress, I recommend exercise, getting plenty of sleep, meditation, yoga, and grounding.
4. High Blood Sugar: We used to think that a fasting morning blood sugar of less than 100 mg/dL was good. Then, that number dropped to 90 mg/dL. Now, the latest research shows that fasting blood sugar should be less than 75 mg/dL. The problem is that high blood sugar leads to higher insulin levels, and insulin causes inflammation of the blood vessels. In fact, the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology have strengthened their focus on the regulation of blood sugar. To lower your blood sugar, it’s important to lose excess weight, restrict carbohydrates, and consider nutraceutical support.
5. Lp(a): This small, dense, highly inflammatory cholesterol particle known as Lp(a) is the most dangerous form of cholesterol. In the bloodstream, it increases the “stickiness” of blood, and contributes dramatically to the formation of clots and the chance of a stroke or heart attack. Yet, it’s off the radar screen of many doctors. If you have a family member who had a heart attack before age 50, that’s a red flag that you could have high Lp(a). Yet, it can be a risk factor even without a positive family history—so everyone needs to be tested. If your Lp(a) level is elevated, here’s how to lower it.
Although there are other risk factors for the heart—such as small particle oxidized LDL cholesterol, high homocysteine, high triglycerides, elevated C-reactive protein, and more—in my opinion these are the top five dangers that you really want to focus on right now.
Now it’s your turn: Did any of these heart health risk factors surprise you?