Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Here's an even more startling statistic: More Americans die of heart disease than all cancers combined.

In recognition of American Heart Month in February, Lake Regional Health System is providing education to Lake Sun readers on various heart health topics.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Here’s an even more startling statistic: More Americans die of heart disease than all cancers combined.

“If you want to live a long, healthy life, take care of your heart,” said Lake Regional Cardiologist Zubair Khan, M.D., FACC. “Heart disease is preventable in many cases. Learn what risk factors you have and then take steps to get those under control.”   

Change What You Can

The American Heart Association divides the major risk factors for heart disease into two categories: factors individuals can change and factors individuals cannot change. 

The factors individuals cannot change include age, gender and heredity: People who are 65 or older, males, and people whose parents have had heart disease face an increased risk. So do members of some races, including African Americans and Mexican Americans.

“Although you cannot change these risk factors, knowing about them is important,” Dr. Khan said. “You can be on high alert to catch problems early. Plus, you will know that it’s essential to control other risk factors.” 

Risk factors for heart disease that people can change include:

Smoking. Smokers’ risk of developing coronary heart disease is two to four times that of nonsmokers, according to the American Heart Association. In addition, cigarette smoking is a powerful independent risk factor for sudden cardiac death in patients with coronary heart disease. 

“If you smoke, stop,” Dr. Khan said. “If you want to stop but don’t know how, talk to your doctor. There are various helps available.”  

High blood cholesterol. Individuals should know their total cholesterol levels, as well as their levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol, HDL “good” cholesterol and triglycerides. 

“High cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke, but it has no symptoms,” Dr. Khan said. “A blood test is the only way to find it. The test is called a lipid profile or lipid panel.”

Once high blood cholesterol is diagnosed, treatment usually starts with lifestyle changes, such as exercising and healthier eating. If these don’t bring satisfactory results, medication might help.  

High blood pressure. High blood pressure increases the heart’s workload, increasing the risk of stroke, heart attack, kidney failure and congestive heart failure. It, too, has no symptoms but can be found with screening.

“Lifestyle changes also impact this risk factor,” Dr. Khan said, adding healthy eating, regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, managing stress, avoiding tobacco smoke and limiting alcohol are all important to blood pressure. Medication might also help.

Obesity and overweight. People who have excess body fat — especially at the waist — are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke even if they have no other risk factors. And, being obese or overweight increases a person’s risk of developing several of the other risk factors, compounding the risk. 

“Many Americans underestimate the risk associated with their extra weight,” Dr. Khan said. “Many people who think they are just overweight are actually obese and at high risk for health problems. A body mass index shows if you are overweight or obese and by how much. Seeing this number can help people wake up to their real need for change.”

Individuals who take the time to learn their risk factors position themselves to take control of their heart health.

“Getting screened for risk factors is the first step,” Dr. Khan said. “Once you know your risk, it’s time to take action to protect your heart.”