You don't want your first sign of heart disease to be a heart attack. That's why it's so important to know what your risk may be for heart disease—the leading cause of death in this country for both men and women.
Answering the following questions can help you learn more about your risk for heart attack.
Note: This assessment is not intended to be a substitute for a visit with your healthcare provider.
Are you male?
If you answered "yes." Men typically have a greater heart attack risk than women, and they have heart attacks earlier in life.
If you answered "no." Men typically have a greater risk of heart attack than women. Even so, heart disease is the leading killer of women in this country.
Are you older than 45?
If you answered "yes." Growing older increases the risk of having a heart attack. For men—who typically have their first heart attack earlier than women—risk generally increases after age 45.
If you answered "no." In most men, the risk of a heart attack typically rises after age 45. Still, even younger men may be vulnerable to heart attack if they have other risk factors.
Are you a woman over 55?
If you answered "yes." Growing older increases the risk of having a heart attack. For women—who typically have heart attacks later than men—risk generally increases after menopause, usually after age 55.
If you answered "no." In most women, heart attack risk rises after menopause, usually after age 55. Still, even younger women may be vulnerable to heart attack if they have other risk factors.
Do you have a history of early heart disease in your immediate family?
If you answered "yes." If you have a father or brother who was diagnosed with heart disease before age 55, your risk of a heart attack increases. You're also at increased risk if your mother or a sister had heart disease before age 65.
If you answered "no." Heart attack risk increases if your father or brother was diagnosed with heart disease before age 55 or your mother or sister had heart disease before age 65. But even without a family history of early heart disease, other risk factors may still make you vulnerable to a heart attack and its complications.
Do you have high blood pressure?
If you answered "yes." High blood pressure—blood pressure that is consistently 130/80 mm Hg or higher—makes the heart work harder and increases your risk of a heart attack. To protect your health, work with your doctor to lower your blood pressure to a healthy range—less than 120/80 mm Hg. Healthy habits (such as being active and limiting the salt in your diet) and, if necessary, prescription medications can lower your blood pressure and protect your heart.
If you answered "no." That's great. But even if you don't have high blood pressure now, you could develop it later. In fact, blood pressure often rises with age. What's more, high blood pressure usually doesn't cause symptoms, so make sure your doctor checks your blood pressure regularly.
If you answered "I don't know." High blood pressure generally doesn't produce symptoms. Still, since high blood pressure increases your risk of a heart attack (as well as other life-threatening health problems, including a stroke) it's essential to know if your blood pressure is in a healthy range. See your doctor and find out.
Are you a smoker?
If you answered "yes." Smoking cigarettes greatly increases your risk of having a heart attack. So, even if you've tried unsuccessfully to quit in the past, try again. One year after quitting, your added heart disease risk will drop to about half that of current smokers.
If you answered "no." Congratulations—you're protecting your heart. Smoking cigarettes greatly increases your risk of a heart attack.
Do you get little or no exercise?
If you answered "yes." Getting little or no exercise is a risk factor for heart attack. Conversely, regular physical activity at a moderate to vigorous intensity protects your heart. Aim for at least 30 minutes of activity on most, and preferably all, days of the week. Check with your doctor before beginning an exercise program if you've been sedentary or have a medical condition.
If you answered "No, I exercise regularly." You're doing your heart a favor, as regular, moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise helps protect your heart and being sedentary raises your heart attack risk.
Do you have unhealthy cholesterol levels?
If you answered "yes." A high level of the wrong kind of cholesterol in your blood—namely, LDL, the bad cholesterol—can clog your arteries and increase your heart attack risk. Additionally, a low level of HDL—the good cholesterol—increases heart attack risk. That's because HDL appears to help the body remove excess cholesterol.
If you answered "no." Good for you. Help keep your cholesterol levels in a healthy range by eating right, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight. In addition, if you're 20 or older you should have your cholesterol tested at least once every five years.
If you answered "I don't know." If you're 20 or older, you need your cholesterol tested at least once every five years. High levels of blood cholesterol raise your heart attack risk and usually don't produce symptoms.
Do you have diabetes?
If you answered "yes." Diabetes heightens your risk of heart disease, especially if your blood sugar is not well controlled. Work closely with your doctor to manage your blood sugar and any other heart disease risk factors that you have.
If you answered "no." You have avoided a major risk factor for heart disease—diabetes. Still, diabetes can develop at any time—and it becomes more likely as you get older. So try to drop pounds if you're overweight, and get regular exercise. These two steps can decrease your risk of type 2 diabetes, the main type of the disease.
Are you overweight?
If you answered "yes." You're more vulnerable to heart attack if you have excess body fat, especially if you carry extra pounds around your middle. Losing weight can protect your heart.
If you answered "no." Staying trim protects your heart. Compared to overweight or obese people, those at a healthy weight are less likely to develop heart disease.
If you answered "I don't know." To get an idea of whether you're at a healthy weight, check your body mass index.
Every question to which you answered yes is one heart attack risk factor. To get a better idea of your risk, you should learn more about any questions to which you didn't know the answers. Share the results of this test with your doctor, and be sure to get his or her insight on how to reduce your risk for heart disease.
If you answered "no" to all the questions, your risk for heart attack appears to be modest. Still, you may want to talk with your doctor to see what you can do to keep it that way.
If you answered "I don't know" to any questions, you should learn more about those potential risk factors and take the assessment again.
The American College of Cardiology offers a detailed online risk assessment tool that can help you learn more about your risk for heart trouble in the next 10 years. You can use the tool at this website.
Sources: American Heart Association; National Institutes of Health; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention