4 Surprising Heart Attack Risk Factors

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
December 28, 2017
4 Surprising Heart Attack Risk Factors

There are a few heart attack risk factors you may not have heard of, including second-hand smoke and skipping the flu shot. Learn more.

Heart disease is still a leading cause of death in the United States, though there are signs that people are living more healthily.

Daily habits explain up to half of deaths from heart events. That means you can take control and feel more confident if you pay attention to heart attack risk factors and do everything you can to avoid them.


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A first step: Know the signs of a heart attack. A problem doesn’t always show up like classic heart attacks in men, with a crushing or squeezing chest pain under the breast bone. Heart attacks in women often don’t even include chest pain. Instead, women often feel extremely weak suddenly and suspect flu.

Be alert for heart trouble if you have unexplained fatigue (without a fever, a sign of flu), nausea that comes and goes, shortness of breath even when you’re not active, or unusual sweating.

Getting help sooner rather than later can save your life.

If you have heart disease or it runs in your family, your doctor should have given you the big picture on heart attack risk factors. It’s essential to quit smoking. A healthful diet and exercise, including both aerobics and strength training, will go a long way to keep your weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure in healthy ranges.

But there are a few safeguards you hear about less often, says Barry Franklin, MD, a Michigan cardiologist and coeditor of “The Heart-Healthy Handbook.”

Stay away from second-hand smoke

Now that the percentage of Americans who smoke has dropped to 12.5 percent, it’s easier to steer clear of the effects of second-hand smoke. It isn’t just unpleasant. If you live with an indoor smoker or spend time in smoky areas, your heart attack risk goes up by a third. In places that banned public smoking, heart attacks dropped dramatically — mainly among non-smokers.

The reason: Exposure to cigarette smoke aggravates inflammation in your arteries, making it harder for them to dilate and constrict normally. Your blood is also more likely to coagulate, the main trigger for heart attacks.

Don’t worry about being rude or hurting a smoker’s feelings. Smokers know they should keep their cigarettes away from other people.

Get a flu shot

Anyone 50 or older — of younger if you have heart disease — is a candidate for a flu shot every year. Seniors should talk to their doctors about the high-dose shot, which is about a quarter more effective. The flu, like second-hand smoke, isn’t just unpleasant. If you have a chronic condition like heart or lung disease, it can trigger a heart or asthma attack.

Don’t stop taking a beta-blocker abruptly

Patients sometimes decide to skip common blood pressure drugs — Inderal and Tenormin are familiar brand names — because of side effects like fatigue, dizziness, and impotence. Or you might lose your pills or forget to renew them. That is a bad idea.

Talk to your doctor about switching medications or cutting your dose to manage side effects. If you want to go off a beta-blocker, your doctor can guide you on how to taper off, usually over 10 to 14 days, Franklin says.

If you stop taking the medication abruptly, you may have a big surge in adrenaline. Your heart will beat faster, and you could have a spike in blood pressure — increasing your chance of a heart attack or stroke.

Know your family history

People with heart disease genes have double the risk. But you can cut your personal risk in half — and in effect overcome your genetic tendency — if you up your health game. Don’t smoke. Eat healthily, limit alcohol, exercise, and keep your weight out of the obesity range. Also, keep diabetes or high blood pressure in check.

Taking good care of yourself to protect your heart will also make you healthier in general — and you’ll feel and look better, too.


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March 29, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA