Risk Factors for Atherosclerosis

Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and while the exact cause of atherosclerosis remains unknown, certain traits, conditions, or habits may raise a person's chance of developing it.

These conditions are known as risk factors and a person's chances of developing atherosclerosis increase with the number of risk factors they have - most risk factors can be controlled and atherosclerosis can be prevented or delayed - these include high Cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in the blood, low level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) in the blood, Hypertension (high blood pressure), tobacco smoke, Diabetes Mellitus, Obesity, inactive lifestyle, age - a family history of heart disease is also a risk factor and the one which cannot be controlled.

Unhealthy blood cholesterol levels - this includes high LDL cholesterol (sometimes called bad cholesterol) and low HDL cholesterol (sometimes called good cholesterol).

High blood pressure - blood pressure is considered high if it stays at or above 140/90 mmHg over a period of time.

Smoking - this can damage and tighten blood vessels, raise cholesterol levels, and raise blood pressure - smoking also doesn't allow enough oxygen to reach the body's tissues.

Insulin resistance - Insulin is a hormone that helps move blood sugar into cells where it's used and insulin resistance occurs when the body cannot use its own insulin properly.

Diabetes - this is a disease in which the body's blood sugar level is high because the body doesn't make enough insulin or does not use its insulin properly.

Overweight or obesity - overweight is having extra body weight from muscle, bone, fat, and/or water - obesity is having a high amount of extra body fat.

Lack of physical activity - lack of activity can worsen other risk factors for atherosclerosis.

Age - as the body ages the risk for atherosclerosis increases and genetic or lifestyle factors cause plaque to gradually build in the arteries - by middle-age or older, enough plaque has built up to cause signs or symptoms, in men, the risk increases after age 45, while in women, the risk increases after age 55.

Family history of early heart disease - the risk for atherosclerosis increases if a father or a brother was diagnosed with heart disease before 55 years of age, or if a mother or a sister was diagnosed with heart disease before 65 years of age but though age and a family history of early heart disease are risk factors, it does not mean that you will develop atherosclerosis if you have one or both. Making lifestyle changes and/or taking medicines to treat other risk factors can often lessen the genetic influences and prevent atherosclerosis from developing, even in older adults.


Emerging Risk Factors

Scientists continue to study other possible risk factors for atherosclerosis and have found that high levels of a protein called C-reactive protein (CRP) in the blood may raise the risk for atherosclerosis and heart attack - high levels of CRP are proof of inflammation in the body which is the body's response to injury or infection - damage to the arteries' inner walls appears to trigger inflammation and help plaque grow.

People with low CRP levels may get atherosclerosis at a slower rate than people with high CRP levels and research is currently under way to establish whether reducing inflammation and lowering CRP levels also can reduce the risk of atherosclerosis.

High levels of fats called triglycerides in the blood also may raise the risk of atherosclerosis, particularly in women.


Other Factors That Affect Atherosclerosis

Other risk factors also may raise your risk for developing atherosclerosis include:

Sleep apnoea - a disorder in which the breathing stops or gets very shallow while a person is sleeping - untreated sleep apnoea can raise the chances of high blood pressure, diabetes, and even a heart attack or stroke.

Stress - research shows that the most commonly reported "trigger" for a heart attack is an emotionally upsetting event-particularly one involving anger.

Alcohol - heavy drinking can damage the heart muscle and worsen other risk factors for atherosclerosis - men should have no more than two drinks containing alcohol a day, while women should have no more than one drink containing alcohol a day.


Further Reading

Last Updated: Jul 14, 2009

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