Do you know your heart risk factors? Here’s why you should

February 28, 2017 Allison Milionis

Remember the days when you’d play so hard and long your heart felt like it would burst from your chest? Most of us took the heart pounding in stride – it was part of being an active kid.

After reaching adulthood, however, a pounding heart may have troublesome implications. You want your heart rate to increase during exercise, but you don’t want it to race while you’re walking up a flight of stairs. A fluttering heart is normal before a job interview, but it shouldn’t happen on an hourly or daily basis.

Aging takes a toll on your heart. While some of the damage is normal wear and tear, your lifestyle choices also play a major role in your heart health.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half of all men and 20 percent of women in the United States have a heart that is five years older than their chronological age. That gap is even higher for African-American men and women.

How does it happen? Smoking, excessive drinking and inactivity wreak havoc on the heart, and so does a diet high in fats and sugars.

The good news is you have the power to reduce your risk of heart disease and keep your heart in good shape as you age.

Get your heart health assessed

If you’re in your 20s or 30s, it’s a good idea to have a cardiovascular risk assessment to determine how risk factors (e.g., smoking, diabetes, obesity, genetics) may be affecting the health and age of your heart.

David Sato, M.D., cardiologist at Providence Medical Institute Cardiology in Burbank, Calif., suggests you talk to your doctor about an assessment. You’ll be asked if heart disease runs in your family plus a number of other health-history and lifestyle questions. The results will tell you and your doctor if you’re at risk of heart problems and what you can do minimize those risks.

Chances are you won’t need to take a treadmill test or EKG after the assessment. “Addressing the risk factors early is more important than testing,” says Dr. Sato.

Women need to know, too

Although heart conditions generally occur 10 years earlier in men than they do in women, it’s a good idea for women in their 20s, 30s and 40s to be aware of the risks and symptoms of heart disease.

In a recent To Your Health post, we wrote that “having no symptoms does not mean a woman is not at risk; nearly two-thirds of women who die from CHD (coronary heart disease) did not report prior symptoms.”

“Historically we didn’t worry as much about women under 40 because heart conditions usually don’t show up until later, post menopause,” says Dr. Sato. But that’s changing. Now a heart risk assessment is just as important for women as it is for men.

From sedentary to active

If you’re in your 30s and decide it’s time to start an exercise routine after a few years of excessive sitting and lounging, don’t assume your heart will be happy and play along. A sudden increase in heart rate can be harmful. And the greater the risk factors, the greater the risk of heart attack.

Dr. Sato recommends you visit your doctor first and revisit your heart risk assessment. If you haven’t had an assessment, it’s mighty important that you do.

Men in their 40s and women in their 50s who have known risks might want to take a stress test before starting a rigorous workout routine. A stress test, sometimes called a treadmill or exercise test, reveals how well your heart is working. It also helps your doctor know what kind and what level of physical activity is right for you. Ask your doctor if you should have a stress test.

The takeaway

Unlike teeth, your heart doesn’t get a yearly cleaning and check-up. Its health largely depends on your age and lifestyle choices. Before you reach your 40s and 50s, know the risk factors that could compromise the health of your heart. The more risk factors you can control now, the less likely you are to have a heart attack in the future.

This month we covered a lot of heart-health topics. It was Heart Month, after all! We hope you find them helpful.

If there are other heart-related or health topics you’d like to learn about, please let us know. You can make your suggestions in the comment section below.

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