10 Surprising Risk Factors of Heart Disease

Heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide, killing around 18 million people each year. Most people are aware of the… Aisha Abdullah - February 6, 2023

Heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide, killing around 18 million people each year. Most people are aware of the common things and habits that are bad for your heart. Things like diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, smoking, heavy drinking, and eating an unhealthy diet are well-known risk factors for heart disease. But did you know that everything from your sleep patterns to your flossing regimen can also impact your risk? These are 10 of the most surprising habits that can increase your risk of heart disease.


Not Getting Enough Sleep

The occasional late night isn’t the end of the world, but frequently running on too little sleep could spell trouble for your heart’s health. Your heart needs rest just as much as the rest of your body. When you fall asleep, you enter non-rapid eye movement (REM), or quiet, sleep. In this state, your brain activity, heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure drop. Your muscles relax, and your breathing slows down. Non-REM sleep allows your body to release stress and recover from the day. Several studies have found that people who don’t get enough sleep or sleep poorly are at higher risk of heart disease. Less than 6 hours of sleep per night is associated with a 20 percent increase in the risk of a heart attack. Sleep deprivation can increase inflammation and the release of stress hormones, both of which have negative effects on heart health. People with sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea have a higher risk of heart failure.

If you’re frequently waking during the night or sleeping fitfully, you’re probably not getting enough non-REM sleep. Unfortunately, that means you’re sleeping but without getting the benefits. Fortunately, there are many ways to improve the length and quality of your sleep. De-stressing before bed and limiting tech usage can go a long way to making sure you’re preparing your brain for sleep. Exercise and being mindful of what you eat/drink before bed will also have a huge impact.

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Chronic Stress and Overworking

We all deal with occasional stress from work, school, and everyday life. But if stress is causing you to feel overwhelmed or drained and affects your ability to concentrate and function normally, you may suffer from chronic stress. Unlike acute stress, which people experience temporarily in response to a stressful event like an argument or getting in a car accident, chronic stress is long-lasting and so are its effects. Prolonged exposure to stress can increase your heart rate and raise your blood pressure, straining the blood vessels and the heart.

Over time, that strain can damage the heart and increase your risk of heart disease. In addition, the hormones the body releases in response to stress cause inflammation in the blood vessels, putting you at higher risk for heart disease and stroke. Many things, including a demanding job or a toxic relationship, can trigger chronic stress. Overworking is one of the common causes of chronic stress. One study found that people who work more than 55 hours a week had a 13 percent higher rate of heart disease than people who work 40 hours or less per week. Reducing stress triggers may help lower your heart disease risk and overall health. Staying active and doing deep breathing exercises can help your body cope with stress.

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Constant Exposure To Air and Noise Pollution

Long-term exposure to air pollution is particularly harmful to the cardiovascular system. A 2016 study found that constant exposure to fine particulate matter (like smoke, soot, and dust) and nitrogen oxides from vehicle and industrial emissions are linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Over time, air pollutants damage the lining of blood vessels and make them more vulnerable to atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque inside the blood vessels. This buildup blocks blood vessels, slows blood flow to the heart, and increases heart disease risk.

Air pollution is everywhere, so what can we do to keep our hearts safe? One of the best ways to reduce exposure to harmful air pollutants is to monitor their levels in your area and adjust your behavior accordingly. Most cities and weather reporting sites have an air pollution index or forecast that tells you particle pollution levels. You can do a few things to reduce exposure to pollutants when air pollution is high. Minimizing time outdoors and limiting outdoor activities is best practice in high air pollution areas. Wear a high-quality mask if you find yourself outdoors for extended periods of time.

Did You Know? Pollution Could be Causing Dementia.


Not Getting Enough Vitamin D

Vitamin D isn’t only important for the health of your bones; it may also help keep your heart healthy. Some studies have linked vitamin D deficiency to increased heart disease and high blood pressure risk. The vitamin plays a role in maintaining healthy blood vessels, which are important for normal heart function. Additionally, vitamin D has anti-inflammatory properties that may help protect the heart. Vitamin D deficiency is a common condition affecting about one billion people worldwide. People with low vitamin D levels may experience fatigue, bone and joint pain, weak or sore muscles, and mood changes. Lack of vitamin D usually results from not getting enough sunlight or not getting enough of the nutrient through your diet.

Additionally, certain medical conditions and medications can interfere with your body’s ability to absorb vitamin D, leading to deficiency. Older people and those who have darker skin are at higher risk for vitamin D deficiency. Only a doctor can diagnose vitamin D deficiency and advise you on the best way to increase levels of the nutrient. Sunlight is the best source of vitamin D. As little as 10 minutes a day can help restore its levels. Supplements may be used to increase vitamin D intake, but, like all supplements, they should only be taken under a doctor’s supervision. Taking too much of the vitamin can cause serious health issues, including a toxic buildup of calcium in the blood. You can also get vitamin D in your diet, primarily through animal products.


Lacking Social Support

Having a support network can do wonders for your overall health. Research shows that people with a strong social support system have a lower risk of heart disease than those who are more socially isolated. Spending time with loved ones can be a great way to relieve stress and boost your mood. On the other hand, social isolation increases stress, the risk of mental health conditions like depression, and vulnerability to health conditions affecting the heart and brain. One study found who had few friends or were unhappy with their relationships had a 29 percent higher risk of heart disease than those with strong social support. That’s the same increase in heart disease risk that comes with smoking!

Now that you know how important friends are to your health, you might be wondering where to find them. Making friends as an adult can be really challenging and downright scary. The tried and true way to make friends is to figure out what you enjoy doing, but that may be easier said than done. Volunteer at a charity or sign up for a class to meet new people. If you’re wanting a fresh way to connect with people, dating apps have romantic and platonic friend features.


Neglecting Your Gums

If you need yet another reason to brush and floss every day, here’s one: Having unhealthy gums may make you more vulnerable to heart disease. Periodontitis is a severe gum disease caused by a bacterial infection in the gums. If this infection spreads to the blood, it can trigger inflammation in the arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease. Research suggests that people with gum disease have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease than those without gum disease. So, by taking care of your teeth and gums, you’re also taking care of your heart. The best way to prevent periodontitis is by treating gum disease early or preventing it from developing in the first place.

Some signs that you might have gum disease include red, sore, puffy, or discolored gums, gums that bleed especially when you floss, pus or brown buildup around the gum line, and gum pain when chewing. Gum disease is very common and completely preventable. Make sure you’re brushing correctly; twice a day (and possibly after every meal). Floss every day, NO exceptions. Don’t skip your regular dental cleaning. You need to make sure that you give your dentist an opportunity to remove your tartar buildup. That buildup is what causes gum disease. Use mouthwash; it prevents plaque and buildup. And quit smoking. For multiple reasons. Just quit smoking.


Sitting All Day

Studies suggest that people with a sedentary lifestyle have a higher risk of heart disease, even those who exercise regularly. Sitting for long periods causes blood flow to slow, leading to plaque buildup in the blood vessels. In addition, sedentary lifestyles are linked to higher inflammation and insulin resistance, which can increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes. One study found that people with sedentary lifestyles had twice the risk of heart disease as people who were more active, even when they had similar diets.

A 2011 study found that sedentary lifestyles were associated with a 147 percent increase in serious cardiovascular events and a 90 percent increase in death from cardiovascular disease. Breaking up sitting with physical activity can help offset the effects of a sedentary lifestyle. In general, you should aim to walk five minutes every two hours you’re sitting. Take short walks during the day and use a standing desk to break up all that sitting you do during the workday. You can also cut down on sedentary time at home by including your family in some nice outdoor activities. Even just a walk around the block after dinner will help.


Eating Too Many Sweets

Diets that are high in added sugars have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, and sweetened drinks like soda and juice are some of the worst culprits. Research shows that consuming too much sugar increases the calorie-storing triglycerides in the body. High levels of triglycerides are a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes. High-sugar diets are associated with weight gain, high blood pressure, inflammation, and high cholesterol, all of which contribute to heart disease. It’s important to remember that sugar isn’t inherently bad. Our bodies can’t survive without sugar as an energy source. Natural sugars like those found naturally in fruit, vegetables, and milk are important for our bodies to function. These foods are also a source of other important nutrients.

Added sugars like those found in cakes, candy, and soft drinks don’t have those benefits. And this applies to added sugars with better reputations, such as honey and agave. Added sugar is added sugar, no matter the source. Cutting down on added sugar could help reduce your heart disease risk. The American Heart Association recommends that adults consume no more than three tablespoons (150 calories) of added sugar each day. Ditch the sugary drinks and reduce processed sugar consumption every day.


Getting The Flu

A 2018 study found that people with the flu had a six times higher risk of a heart attack in the week after their infection. That startling finding highlights why it’s much better to prevent infections if possible because even seemingly minor infections can have serious complications. When viral infections, including the flu, travel to the heart, they can cause damage that leads to heart disease. It’s not known exactly how the flu impacts the heart, but we know the infection can increase inflammation, which is a risk factor for heart disease. So doctors recommend that everyone eligible, especially older adults, get their flu shot each year. The shot doesn’t just protect against a nasty seasonal infection; it also protects against an increased risk of cardiovascular conditions.

The flu increases the risk of heart disease by causing inflammation, putting strain on the heart, weakening the immune system, and exacerbating preexisting heart conditions. This can lead to the formation of blood clots, damage to blood vessels, and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. People with heart disease or risk factors for heart disease should get a flu shot and take precautions to reduce their risk of getting the flu. If you do get the flu, get rest and stay hydrated. And if you’re high-risk, ask your doctor about antivirals.


Experiencing Trauma

Traumatic events have a lasting effect on us. While you might think that the impact is limited to the brain, the heart can also bear some of the damage of trauma, even years later. The stress that follows a traumatic event takes a toll on the heart. One study found that women who had experienced three or more traumatic events had an increased risk of heart disease due to abnormalities in their blood vessels. The types of trauma that triggered these health effects included being a survivor of abuse, losing a child, getting in a car accident, and experiencing a natural disaster. According to the American Heart Association, trauma experienced during childhood and adolescence can have lasting negative health effects, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

The American Psychological Association recommends the following if you’re struggling to cope with trauma: Take care of yourself. The most important thing you can do after experiencing trauma is to make sure you’re taking care of your basic needs. Make sure that you’re getting enough to eat and eating healthy meals. Try to stay hydrated, get enough sleep, and get some physical activity if you’re able. Give yourself time to heal. Reach out to family and friends. Your loved ones may be able to help you process what you’ve been through or just be a shoulder to cry on. Seek treatment. Mental health professionals can help you get through the aftermath of a traumatic event and give you tools to help you cope. consider seeking counseling if you’re struggling to carry on or maintain relationships.


Where Do We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

WebMD – Surprising Things That Lead to Heart Disease

ADA – Cardiovascular disease risk factors

Prevention – 15 Weird Heart Disease Risk Factors, According to Doctors

Texas Heart – Heart Information Center: Heart Disease Risk Factors

Beaumont – Surprising Risk Factors of Heart Disease and How to Avoid Them

Women Health Magazine – 11 Bizarre Factors That Increase Your Risk Of Heart Disease