You don’t smoke. You exercise regularly. Your total cholesterol levels are within recommended limits, your blood pressure is normal and you’re not obese. So your risk for coronary heart disease is pretty low, right? Not necessarily. While you still need to keep these factors in mind, scientists are now alert to other symptoms that may increase your risk for heart disease. Becoming aware of these conditions and getting appropriate screenings can help you do even more to keep your heart healthy.
Inflammation in coronary arteries
Researchers are investigating more thoroughly the correlation between heart disease and inflammation in your coronary arteries. One marker for heart disease is the presence in your bloodstream of C-reactive protein (CRP), which your liver produces as part of the normal response to injury or infection. A high CRP level is associated with inflammation in the body. Researchers think plaque buildup triggers inflammation in the blood vessels, leading to blood clots, blockages and heart attack or stroke. A blood test can detect your CRP level.
Calcium deposits in arteries
Researchers believe that calcium deposits found in arteries may be connected to the fatty plaques that lead to coronary artery disease. Your doctor may decide to use electron-beam tomography, a test method similar to computerized tomography (CT) scanning, to screen for high levels of calcium deposits, which increase your risk for an artery blockage or a heart attack.
Studies show that three out of four people with diabetes die from cardiovascular disease, so it’s important to control your blood sugar and make sure cholesterol and blood pressure problems are treated. Talk to your doctor about losing weight, if needed. People with diabetes also have to be concerned about an increased risk for calcium deposits in their coronary arteries.
Low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol
HDL, or good, cholesterol helps keep plaque from building up in your arteries. Scientists recommend an HDL of 60 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) for protection against heart disease and warn that less than 40 mg/dL indicates a high risk for heart disease.
Insufficiently low levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol
The current target is to reduce LDL, or bad, cholesterol to no more than 100 mg/dL. Recent studies suggest, however, that a limit of 80 mg/dL would more effectively protect against heart disease. To lower cholesterol, the American Dietetic Association recommends regular exercise along with a diet low in saturated fat and high in fiber from vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
Excess abdominal fat
Obesity has been recognized as a risk factor for heart disease, but doctors think that too much abdominal fat particularly may be a cause for concern. That’s because central obesity can mean you have a problem using insulin, a condition called Syndrome X or metabolic syndrome, which increases your risk for coronary artery disease. So, if you carry too much weight through the middle, talk to your doctor about how you can safely minimize your risk. Losing excess pounds and exercising can help you shed fat and improve your insulin sensitivity.
Tooth loss from gum disease
Research indicates that people with periodontal disease have a greater risk for heart disease than do people with healthy gums. Scientists have different theories about the connection—some say dental inflammation causes increased plaque buildup in the arteries, while others suggest that oral bacteria affect the heart when they enter the bloodstream. Maintain healthy gums and teeth by practicing good dental hygiene and scheduling regular checkups with your dentist.
You can address some of these factors with lifestyle changes. Eating a healthier diet and adjusting your exercise program can improve cholesterol levels and combat diabetes and Syndrome X. You can also pay closer attention to the health of your teeth and gums. Talk to your doctor about other screenings that might be helpful, and be sure to get regular checkups and screenings to stay on top of your health.