Cardiovascular disease (CVD)—which includes coronary heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), and stroke—is the leading cause of death globally, and heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the United States (American Heart Association 2018). Risk factors for cardiovascular disease include diet, obesity/overweight, diabetes, smoking and alcohol consumption, and physical inactivity.
The connections between these factors and heart disease may not seem obvious and will be addressed here beginning with diet. Diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol can lead to atherosclerosis, a condition in which fat and cholesterol form plaque inside the arteries, eventually building up and hardening to the point that blood flow is blocked. Too much salt in the diet leads to fluid retention, which increases blood volume and thereby blood pressure, taxing the heart. Obesity/overweight contribute to cardiovascular disease directly through increases in total blood volume, cardiac output, and cardiac workload. In other words, the heart has to work much harder if one is overweight (Akil and Ahmad 2011). Obesity also relates to CVD indirectly through elevation of blood pressure (hypertension) and diabetes. High levels of blood glucose from diabetes can damage blood vessels and the nerves that control the heart and blood vessels. Alcohol consumption can raise blood pressure and triglyceride levels, a type of fat found in the blood. Alcohol also adds extra calories, which may cause weight gain, especially around the abdomen, which is directly associated with risk of a heart attack (Akil and Ahmad 2011). Cigarette smoking also increases the risk of coronary heart disease. Nicotine increases blood pressure; in addition, cigarette smoke causes fatty buildup in the main artery in the neck and thickens blood, making it more likely to clot. It also decreases levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol (American Heart Association 2018). Even secondhand smoke can have an adverse effect if exposure occurs on a regular basis. Chronic psychological stress also elevates the risk of heart disease (Dimsdale 2008). The repeated release of stress hormones like adrenaline elevates blood pressure and may eventually damage artery walls. The human stress response and its connections to health and disease are discussed in more detail below.
However, physical activity alters the likelihood of having heart disease, both directly and indirectly. Regular exercise of moderate to vigorous intensity strengthens the heart muscle and allows capillaries, tiny blood vessels in your body, to widen, improving blood flow. Regular exercise can also lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and manage blood sugar levels, all of which reduce the risk of CVD.