Senior Center

Is a Heart Attack Waiting to Happen?

By Jan Bolder - January 24, 2014

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Dubbed "the silent killer", heart attacks rarely "just happen", as there are usually plenty of warning signs that one is waiting in the wings. Are you at risk?

Major Risk Factors (Unchangeable)

  • Gender:  According to the American Heart Association, men are at a higher risk of having heart attacks, and to have them earlier in life. They also report that despite a woman's increased chance of dying from heart disease after menopause, men still lead the way.
  • Age:  At the cut-off age of 65 and older, a person's chance of having a heart attack is about 82%. The heart doesn't work as well as they used to, with walls thickening and arteries stiffening. Heart attacks are deadlier for senior women, too, as the sex hormones before menopause were more of a buffer from death within a few weeks.
  • Heredity:  Family members who have had heart attacks before 55 are in the bracket of likely passing on that gene to younger family members. They're also more likely to pass on risk factors like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. And ethnic groups, like African Americans and Hispanics (compared against whites), are likelier to have heart disease running in the family.

    Major Risk Factors (Controllable)

  • Smoking: Every puff taken on a cigarette increases heart rate (as well as increases irregular beating), tightens arterial walls, and damages the heart's ability to work efficiently. Smokers are 2 to 4 times likelier to develop coronary heart disease than non-smokers, and even cigar or pipe smokers suffering from an increased risk.
  • High Blood Cholesterol: Not all cholesterol is bad, but the total number should be less than 200 mg/dL. Low Density Cholesterol (LDL, or the "good" kind) should be less than 160 mg/dL for those with low risk, less than 130 mg/dL for intermediate risk, and less than 100 mg/dL. And for High Density Cholesterol (HDL- the "bad" kind), the numbers should be 40 mg/dL or higher for men and 50 mg/dL or higher for women. Lastly, triglycerides should be less than 150 mg/dL.
  • High Blood Pressure: The greater the force against which blood hits vessel walls, the harder the heart is working. And the harder it works, the likelier it is of becoming thick, tough and stiff- and eventually breaking down. High blood pressure isn't always bad- such as during exercise- but chronically high blood pressure is. It increases risk of stroke, heart attack, kidney failure and congestive heart failure, and when coupled with obesity, smoking, high blood cholesterol levels or diabetes, that risk increases several times.
  • Weight: A higher-than-normal Body Mass Index (BMI) can mean higher levels of cholesterol and higher blood pressure, both of which increase the chance of coronary heart disease, as well as acquiring diabetes. And if that excess body weight is around the waist, the chances of having a heart attack go way up, even if other risk factors aren't present.
  • Inactivity: Leading an active lifestyle with 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise each day vastly decreases the chance of a heart attack. Not doing so means an increased chance of high blood pressure, accumulation of cholesterol, and poor management of existing conditions.
  • Stress: The stress hormone cortisol is good in small doses, as it activates a state of arousal by increasing energy flow (glucose, protein, fat) into the bloodstream and making the person more physically ready to act. But in large or repeated doses, cortisol can signal your body that sugar and insulin shouldn't be metabolized, converting it to fat that's usually stored around the middle.
  • Diabetes Mellitus: This type of diabetes describes either a failure to produce insulin (Type 1) or cells being resistant to insulin (Type 2.) But either way, people with diabetes are 65% more likely to die of some form of heart or blood vessel disease. This risk goes up if blood sugar is poorly managed, such as overweight or obese people whose excess weight can mean higher blood sugar levels.

    Although there are some risk factors you can't do anything about, there are other signs and symptoms to watch out for that may indicate a heart attack will happen down the road.


  • American Heart Association
  • Texas Heart Institute
  • WebMD
  • National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute
  • Health Magazine