As we age, the stakes get higher for coronary artery disease (CAD). A man in his 70s has a higher risk of developing CAD than a man in his 20s. But CAD does not occur overnight.
Even at 20 years old, you can affect what happens to you and your heart health when you are older. Having an appropriate health maintenance exam to define your risk of diabetes, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and other cardiac risk factors is very important for heart health.
The role genetics plays
The single biggest risk factor for developing CAD is genetics. A person (man or woman) who has a family history of early-age CAD (usually defined as 55 or younger) needs to be extremely diligent about his or her heart health.
Even though you can’t change genetics, there are certain genetic risk factors that can be modified — and the earlier you start, the better.
- If you are a diabetic (which is a significant risk factor for CAD), you can follow a diabetic diet and seek regular medical attention to modify this risk factor.
- If you have elevated cholesterol levels, you can follow your doctor’s recommendations for an appropriate diet with the addition of medication, if needed. But high cholesterol is also strongly tied to your genetic make-up. For example, I have vegan marathon runners whose cholesterol levels are extremely high. It isn’t that they need to exercise more or eat healthier; it’s simply that they have a genetic predisposition for elevated cholesterol levels.
- If you have high blood pressure, you should invest in a home blood pressure monitor to ensure your blood pressures are well controlled throughout the year, not just at your annual doctor’s visit.
Other healthy changes
If you are sedentary, you should absolutely incorporate exercise into your daily routine. That doesn’t mean you should live at a gym eight hours a day. Rather, you should do some form of aerobic activity at least 45 to 60 minutes per day. Bike riding, walking, swimming — anything that raises your heart rate and increases your overall aerobic capacity.
The one ”curable” CAD risk factor involves smoking. The nicotine in cigarettes causes reduced oxygen flow to the heart, increased blood pressure and heart rate and increased blood thickness, which increases the chance of developing blood clots and can directly damage the cells that line the heart arteries — not to mention the multiple types of cancer cigarettes can cause. So, if you smoke, QUIT!
- Know your family history with respect to cardiac disease as well as for high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol.
- The best diet for all of us to follow is the Mediterranean diet. In short, eat less red meats and more fruits and veggies.
- DON’T SMOKE — ever.
- Begin heart-healthy habits early and continue them throughout your life.
Dr. Kenneth Tobin is a clinical assistant professor for the Department of Internal Medicine and director in the Chest Pain Center at the University of Michigan. His specialty is cardiology, with clinical interests in the association of patent foramen ovale and stroke, patent foramen ovale and migraine, preventive cardiology and echocardiography.
The University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is the top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at umcvc.org.