Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. Although none of us can control when we die, we do have some control over our risks. Heart disease, or cardiovascular disease, is a risk factor we can reduce. Consuming a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and managing your stress are all good things you can do to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. But the most important thing you can do to modify your cardiovascular risk is to quit smoking. Having a smoking habit increases your risk of cardiovascular disease in several ways.
Smoking Effects on Cardiovascular Health
Smoking causes widespread inflammation throughout the body, which makes cardiovascular disease a greater risk. Researchers aren’t sure yet exactly how inflammation is linked to heart disease, but they do know that the link is undeniable. Smoking damages the blood vessels and makes it harder for the blood to carry oxygen throughout the body, which may be somehow linked to inflammation.
Raises Blood Pressure
Smoking increases your blood pressure. The reason that a higher blood pressure level is dangerous and contributes to heart disease is because it means that your heart has to work harder to pump blood through your body. The heart is a muscle, and it can become weaker when it has to work too hard.
The amount that you smoke seems to be linked to the amount of increase in your blood pressure as well. A British study found that light smokers (less than nine cigarettes a day) had a much lower risk of having high blood pressure than heavier smokers. When it comes to smoking and high blood pressure concerns, it is best if you can quit altogether, but significantly cutting back can still make a difference, too.
Risks for Women
Although many people assume the typical heart disease victim is an older male, people of any age or gender can be afflicted. Women in particular are at greater risk if they use birth control pills while smoking; the combination of the hormones plus smoking seems to intensify damage to the heart. Although smoking while taking birth control pills causes increased health risks in all women, this combination is particularly dangerous for women over 35 years of age.
Contributes to Atherosclerosis
Atherosclerosis means that fatty deposits, or plaque, have built up inside the arteries. As these plaque deposits build up, they eventually narrow the arteries and make it harder for blood to flow through them. When the arteries get narrower, the heart has to beat much harder to push the blood through them. The body seems to think this plaque is a foreign substance and tries to isolate it from the blood, but in certain circumstances the plaques can rupture. Pieces of ruptured plaque can combine with blood clots and lead to heart attacks.
Peripheral Arterial Disease
Peripheral Arterial Disease, or PAD, occurs when the body’s blood flow becomes blocked by plaque that has caused veins to become narrow. Blood cannot flow freely through tight and constricted veins, which means that the body parts that depend on receiving blood are deprived of necessary oxygen.
Peripheral arterial disease can be extremely serious. This lack of blood flow can cause gangrene and tissue death, particularly in the legs and feet, although it can also occur in other parts of the body like the arteries that carry blood to your head, heart and kidneys. Sometimes amputation is required when PAD has caused too much loss of blood flow for too long. Symptoms of PAD can include a heavy sensation in the legs and difficulty with walking or climbing stairs. Smoking is the main risk factor for developing peripheral arterial disease. Smokers and former smokers are up to four times more likely to develop PAD compared to non-smokers.
Although heart disease is often genetic, there are ways that you can work to reduce your risk of heart disease. Some ways that you can try to prevent developing heart disease include the following:
- Quit smoking. Because smoking causes about two out of every five deaths, it’s arguably the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease.
- Get regular exercise. You don’t have to spend hours in the gym, just move a little bit each day. Find an activity you enjoy so exercise will be more enjoyable.
- Maintain a healthy diet. Avoid fast food, processed foods and a lot of sugar, and fill up on heart-healthy fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Unwind and relax. Too much stress raises your blood pressure, which is bad for your heart.