20 risks for heart disease you didn't know you had

By Dr. Ronald Hoffman

This article originally appeared in MindBodyGreen on April 2, 2014

By now, pretty much everyone is familiar with the classic risk factors for heart disease: smoking, poor diet, Type A personality, sedentary lifestyle, obesity, family history, diabetes, high blood pressure, too much "bad cholesterol," inflammation.

But less well known are these 20 surprising potential heart hazards, some of which seem totally counterintuitive.

Diet soda
Feel virtuous now that you've switched from sugar-laden sodas, bottled teas, and juice drinks to no-cal alternatives? Think again. Researchers have already noted that, unexpectedly, swapping sugary beverages for artificially sweetened alternatives does not help dieters lose weight.

Now, a new study just presented at the American College of Cardiology's annual meeting shows that women who consumed at least two diet sodas per week were 30 percent more likely to suffer heart problems than women who rarely consumed sugarless fizzy drinks.

Whatever you make of the association, it's pretty clear that drinking no-cal drinks didn't seem to help women in this study avert heart problems.

Your car
Your car may be killing you. Auto commuters traversing more than 30 miles daily suffer from more stress, high blood pressure and heart disease. They also die younger, according to a study by social geographer Erika Sandow from Sweden's Ume University.

Why? It may be the aggravation of traffic snafus; the inhaled, artery-damaging road pollutants probably don't help; plus, all that time spent sitting is a risk in itself (see # 11 later).

Over-the-counter pain medication
NSAIDs - nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g. Advil, Motrin, Aleve) - are notorious for causing stomach bleeding. But unlike heart-protective aspirin, they actually may make the blood more prone to clotting, raising the risks of heart attacks and strokes.

Additionally, sometimes this class of drugs can cause the kidneys to retain water, boosting blood pressure.

The good news is these medications mostly raise heart risks in people who already have well-established heart disease - ordinary folks are less affected.

Whole wheat bread
In general, high-fiber whole grains are considered heart-healthy, unless you O.D. on pasta and bagels and you're carbohydrate-sensitive. But a new study reveals that if you have celiac disease, consuming gluten can double your heart disease risk.

Vegetable oil
Influential sites like health.gov and heart.org keep urging us to "Choose a diet low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol ... Vegetable oils supply smaller amounts of saturated fat ... unsaturated fats reduce blood cholesterol when they replace saturated fats in the diet."

But a new study casts doubt on these recommendations. Researchers discovered that when conscientious eaters followed standard recommendations to substitute saturated fats with vegetable oils, their heart risk didn't decrease - it increased.

Ultra-endurance sports
Exercise is good for the heart. But new thinking is emerging about relentless training for marathons, ultra-marathons, and Iron Man competitions. Some studies have shown a trend toward heart enlargement and cardiac arrhythmias among high-intensity competitors; others point to cumulative damage to heart muscles due to mild, unnoticed heart attacks after strenuous exertion.

Worst of all, very high levels of athleticism are not a perfect bulwark against atherosclerosis. Even fit marathoners have sometimes been found to have significant amounts of coronary calcium deposits.

Snoring
Excessive snoring may be a tip-off that you have sleep apnea. Characterized by frequents bouts of oxygen starvation due to impaired breathing, sleep apnea can raise blood pressure and damage heart muscle. To find out if you have sleep apnea, ask for a sleep study called a polysomnography.

Being single
OK, you thought you were avoiding the aggravation of domestic strife? Think again. A new study shows that, for people 50 and under, being married reduces risk from all vascular diseases by 12%. If you're over 50, no worries: being single poses minimal risk.

Noise
Did the realtor neglect to tell you that your new home lies directly in the flight path of incoming jumbo jets? Excessive noise triggers elevations of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline that can lead to hypertension, stroke, and heart failure.

Low blood pressure
Isn't it high blood pressure that leads to heart disease? Well, conversely, if your blood pressure is too low, heart problems can result. This is particularly the case for older individuals whose doctors overzealously prescribe blood pressure meds. When blood pressure is too low, there's a danger blood vessels won't fill properly, and the heart is starved of its blood supply.

To read the final ten causes, continue to our website.

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