Assess Personal Risk
High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure occurs when the force of blood pushing against the vessel walls is too high, making the heart and vessels work harder. The friction damages the endothelium—the inner lining of veins and arteries—plaque builds up, the vessels narrow and blood pressure increases even more. Contributing factors include being sedentary, overweight and consuming excessive alcohol or salt.
A waxy, fat-like substance found in all cells of the body, cholesterol can pile up (mostly as a consequence of poor diet) and stick to arterial walls, creating plaque that stymies blood flow to the heart.
The end product of digesting fats in food, triglycerides become fat in the blood that gives the body energy. Numbers climb with consumption of refined carbohydrates, simple sugars and fatty foods, contributing to arteriosclerosis.
A cluster of conditions that affect up to a third of Americans, metabolic syndrome is defined by high blood pressure; high levels of blood sugar, cholesterol and triglycerides; and excess fat around the waist. It’s closely linked to Type 2 diabetes, another CVD risk factor.
Obesity—which afflicts almost 40 percent of American adults—causes chronic inflammation, harms the endothelium and causes poor cholesterol numbers. A 12-year study of 17,640 Europeans, published in the European Heart Journal, found that obese people with metabolic risk factors were two-and-a-half times as likely to have heart disease as those of normal weight.
When stressed by such factors as work overload, family strife or traumatic memories, the body releases adrenaline, which causes acceleration of breathing and heart rate, contraction of vessels and a rise in blood sugar. Chronic stress can cause constricted arteries that lead to rteriosclerosis and inflammation of the endothelium. Further, stressed people often turn to vascular-destructive activities such as smoking, drinking and binge eating.
Standard American Diet (SAD)
Previous studies have linked processed foods to hypertension and high cholesterol, and a 2019 British Medical Journal study of 105,000 adults reported that a 10 percent increase in the consumption of processed foods corresponded to a 12 percent overall increase in cardiovascular disease.
Chronic inflammation, caused by such factors as fried and processed foods, smoking, obesity, alcohol and stress, can trigger the immune system to attack healthy tissues, including the endothelium, raising CVD risk. C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammation marker, is measured by the hsCRP blood test. Men with higher CRP levels had three times the risk of heart attack and twice the risk of stroke, Harvard scientists have found.
A lack of regular, ongoing physical activity has been shown to dramatically increase obesity, blood pressure, cholesterol and inflammation. A 2019 British study found that artery functions declined and CVD risk factors worsened in just two weeks when active exercisers reduced their daily steps from 10,000 to 1,000.
Smoking and Vaping
Nicotine, carbon monoxide and chemicals in cigarettes increase blood pressure and heart rate, damage the endothelium and cause blood platelets to clot more, which is why smokers are two to four times more likely to get cardiovascular disease. E-cigarettes and cigars may be worse due to higher doses of nicotine, the AHA warns.
People need people: Harvard researchers examined 23 studies that involved 181,000 adults and found that loneliness, social isolation or both were associated with increased risks of heart attacks (29 percent) and strokes (32 percent).