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- Heart disease is the number one killer in the US.
- But many heart attacks are preventable, and they’re becoming less deadly and less common than they used to be in the US.
- Some of the most straightforward things that raise your risk of an attack include being overweight, not getting enough sleep, and smoking.
Heart diseases — chiefly heart attacks — are the number one killer in the US. In 2016, they killed 635,260 people.
The heart is the body’s most critical life pump, and a heart attack (or myochardial infarction, by its more scientific name) is what happens when a person’s heart can’t get enough blood.
When this happens, people often start to feel dizzy, get chest pains that might shoot through the left arm, and become short of breath.
Inside the body, a heart attack is usually the work of a blood clot, which blocks our hardest-working muscle’s normal supply of blood. A heart attack can do serious damage to people’s heart muscles.
The good news is that by and large, heart attack rates are improving: They’re both less deadly and less common than they used to be in the US. According to a study released in March, heart attack hospitalizations have gone down 38% since the mid-90s in the US, and the mortality rate for heart attacks is at an all-time low, though not in every community.
But even as doctors learn more about what causes heart attacks and how to prevent them, attacks are becoming more common in young people. The proportion of heart attack patients under 40 has been climbing at about 2% a year for the past 10 years, according to recent research presented at the American College of Cardiology’s Scientific Session.
"It used to be incredibly rare to see anyone under age 40 come in with a heart attack, and some of these people are now in their 20s and early 30s," study author Ron Blankstein, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said in a release. "Based on what we are seeing, it seems that we are moving in the wrong direction."
Here are a few of the most influential things that can your risk of having a heart attack.
Scientists have known for a while that smoking is dangerous for your heart.
Smoking cigarettes has long been linked to more heart attacks, largely because the chemicals that are in tobacco hurt our blood cells and increase the risk of atherosclerosis. This dangerous buildup of plaque in the arteries can make a heart attack more likely.
Secondhand smoke contains a lot of the same dangerous chemicals, which is why it can also hurt our hearts.
"No matter how much or how long you’ve smoked, quitting will benefit you," according to the National Institutes of Health.
Increasing evidence suggests that it may not just be tobacco that’s bad — marijuana smoking might contribute to heart attack risk as well.
Because pot has been an illicit and illegal substance for so long, scientific studies on its long-term effects are still scant. But researchers studying heart attacks in people under 40 are worried about a possible link between two data sets: As heart attack rates have gone up in young people, so has their likelihood to report smoking marijuana. This doesn’t prove anything, but it’s a hint that more research is warranted.
Extra flab, especially around a person’s mid-section, can also make a heart attack more likely.
Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images
Being overweight increases a person’s risk of having a heart attack. But even losing a little weight can help: the heavier you are, the more likely a heart attack becomes, especially if you’re adding pounds around your mid-section.
A 2018 study of nearly 500,000 middle aged folks in the UK found that those who had bigger bellies were more likely to suffer heart attacks. This was especially true for women with large mid-sections, who had a 10%-20% higher risk of heart attack than others. The find suggests it’s more important to take a look at your waistline than hop on the scale, when you’re measuring heart health.
It may seem obvious, but spending too much time on the couch without moving your body can create problems for your heart as well.
You don’t have to be an Olympian: Just a 30-minute walk each day can help maintain heart health.
Even cleaning up the house can count. A 2007 Harvard study of female hotel maids famously found that when researchers told certain maids that their work was good exercise and satisfied federal recommendations for an active lifestyle, the women lost more weight than their peers. They also lowered their blood pressure and reduced their waist size, reducing their risk of having a heart attack.
"Even activities of low energy expenditure, such as socializing with friends or housekeeping activities, may have a substantial benefit to your health compared to time spent sitting and watching TV," Sotirios Tsalamandris, a cardiologist at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece said recently in a release.
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