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Heart Disease Risk Factors

  • 5 Heart Health Indicators to Know

  • You know your weight. You know the date of your daughter’s next orthodontist appointment. You probably know the birthdays of everyone in your close circle of friends and family.

    But do you know the numbers that could help save your life?

    Triglyceride levels, HDL, systolic readings . . . Admittedly, they’re not very glamorous. There’s a reason we find them a tad forgettable, preferring instead to relegate them to some geriatric future (far in the future) of which surely we won’t have to face.

    But whatever your age -- young or old or in-between -- getting to know these numbers and other cardiac risk factors could help save your life. In fact, they set the stage for the best ways to protect yourself against the leading cause of death in women.

    “Women need to take control of their lives,” says Sutter Auburn Faith Cardiologist Diane Sobcowicz, M.D. “These are very simple tests to see where they stand in terms of risk factors. These are the things you can do something about if you know ahead of time what to do.”

    Here’s the reality check: More women than men die of heart attacks each year, and 45 percent of heart attacks occur in people younger than 65. One in three American women die of heart disease, making it four to six times more likely that a woman will die of heart disease than breast cancer.

    That’s the bad news.

    The good news is that the power is in your hands to keep the odds in your favor. The first step is to know your numbers. If you don’t read any further, remember this:

    You can prevent or lessen the effects of heart disease by staying informed about your body and taking appropriate steps to address red flags as they come along.

    • Cholesterol (HDL, LDL and triglyceride levels)
    • Blood pressure
    • BMI
    • Blood sugar

  • Heart Health Indicators to Know

  • Family History

    No it’s not a number, but it influences the impact of your numbers. Have any of your parents, siblings or grandparents been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease? Do you have an immediate relative who had a heart attack before age 55? While we can’t do anything to change risk factors associated with things like genetics, sex and race, family history provides an important context through which to consider other risk factors that can be addressed.

    Blood Pressure

    Your blood pressure reading (e.g., 110/70) is expressed in two important numbers: systolic (the top number) and diastolic (the bottom number). Systolic is the blood’s pressure in the arteries when the heart beats, while diastolic measures pressure at rest. Excessive pressure puts extra strain on the heart and vascular system, significantly increasing a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease.

    A woman with a systolic blood pressure reading of 140 is two-and-a-half times more likely to have a heart attack than a woman with a reading of 110. In men, the elevated reading carries a significantly lower risk of one-a-half percent.

    In 2003, the National Institutes of Health changed blood pressure guidelines lowering the acceptable normal range to urge more aggressive and earlier treatment of high blood pressure. According the NIH report, the increase in stroke and heart disease risk begins at blood pressures as low as 115/75 mmHg and doubles with each increase of 20 mmHg systolic blood pressure and 10 mmHg diastolic.

    One of the key elements in the new guidelines is a new “prehypertensive” classification (blood pressure falling between 120/80 and 130/89), which gives people at risk an early head start at improving their odds. Catching prehypertension early is like reversing weight gain after those first five pounds. It’s a lot easier to change behavior and see results when you stay on top of the numbers.


    Chances are, most people know the basics about cholesterol; it’s the specifics though that matter. The distinctions between LDL, HDL and triglyceride measurements determine each person’s unique risk.

    LDL (a.k.a. bad cholesterol) is the major cholesterol carrier in the blood, and if too much it is in circulation, it can slowly build up in the walls of the arteries feeding the heart and brain.

    HDL is the good guy cholesterol and actually helps clear bad cholesterol from the blood, especially at levels of 60 or above.

    Triglycerides are fats made from the sugars, alcohol and carbohydrates you eat. In fact, high triglycerides are often one of the first signs of diabetes.

    Healthy cholesterol guidelines call for:

    • Total cholesterol (LDL plus HDL) that is below 200 mg/dl
    • LDL at 100 mg/dl and below
    • HDL at 50 mg/dl and above
    • Triglycerides below 150 mg/dl

    Body Mass Index (BMI) Waist Measurement and Weight

    Your BMI is your weight in relation to your height.
    • An ideal BMI falls between 18.5 - 24.9
    • A BMI of 25 - 29.9 puts a person in the overweight category.
    • A BMI of 30 is clinically obesity.

    Excess weight taxes your heart, raises blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels while lowering good cholesterol levels. According to the American Heart Association, even modest weight increases of 10 to 20 pounds in a typical 30 to 64-year-old adult can increase a person’s risk of death.

    Blood Sugar

    What does blood sugar have to do with heart disease? When high blood sugar is left untreated it often develops into Type II Diabetes, a condition that doubles a woman’s risk of dying of a heart attack.

    “When it comes to cardiac risk factors, women typically have a lag time of six to 10 years before experiencing serious cardiovascular symptoms” says Dr. Sobkowicz. “Diabetes eliminates that lag tim, causing heart problems much earlier."

    Fasting blood sugar tests are used to diagnose diabetes and involve a simple blood test administered after not eating or drinking anything but water for eight hours.
    • Normal fasting blood sugar is less than 100 mg/DL.
    • Fasting blood sugar levels of 100 to 125 mg/DL point to prediabetes.
    • Anything above 125 mg/DL falls into the diabetic range.

    Like the prehypertensive designation for blood pressure, prediabetes is getting much more attention, giving people an early heads-up for preventive measures.

  • You’ve Got the Numbers, Now What?

  • Whatever your numbers, the news is better than you think (assuming you can give up your regular evening dates with Ben and Jerry).

    Eat well, exercise often and don’t smoke. Heard that before? Consider the following:

    • As soon as a woman reaches peri-menopause, her blood vessels begin to get stiffer and less pliable. Exercise, however, can reverse this aging process, making the vessels more elastic.
    • “Exercise” means 30 to 60 minutes of sustained aerobic activity, five or six times a week. Lack of exercise increases risk for high blood pressure by 40 - 50 percent.
    • For every one-milligram rise in HDL (the good cholesterol), the risk for developing cardiovascular disease falls by 2 to 3 percent.
    • Women are more sensitive to salt intake and should have no more than 1500 milligrams of sodium per day.