You can easily calculate your risk of having a heart attack or dying from a heart attack by going to the National Cholesterol Education Program’s website. All you need to know is your cholesterol (total and HDL – good cholesterol), your latest blood pressure, and whether you are on medication to control blood pressure. The other information you need you should know already – your age, gender, and whether you smoke.
The number generated is your risk of having a heart attack over the next ten years. If your risk is 5 percent, that means if 100 people with the same risk profile, i.e. same cholesterol, blood pressure, age, gender, etc., were followed over 10 years, five of those individuals would die or suffer from a heart attack over that time. The other 95 individuals would do just fine.
The calculator should not be used for people who have diabetes or who have had a heart attack or heart disease (coronary artery disease) in the past as these individuals are already considered high risk.
While you cannot change risk factors like age or gender, other risk factors for heart disease are modifiable. Blood pressure and cholesterol can be lowered. For one thing, you can decide whether or not to smoke, and whether or not to eat well. If, after taking the test, you discover that your risk is 10 to 20 percent or 20 percent or higher, you should check with your doctor. He may suggest that diet and exercise are enough or if a cholesterol-lowering medication needs to be prescribed to further decrease your risk.
Remember that this is only a tool and is not a substitute for sound medical advice. Even if your number is low, you still need to do the right things to stay healthy. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in this country, but don’t ignore the second leading cause of death, cancer, either. You should, however, review your numbers with your doctor at a future visit.
The calculation is based on the information and findings from the famous Framingham Heart Study. This research study initially started in 1948 and followed a group of over five thousand adults, ages thirty to sixty-two, with extensive physical examinations, history taking, and blood work every two years to determine risk factors and patterns for heart disease. In 1971, the study followed a similar number of the original participants’ adult children and their spouses. Though the data was based on thousands of people over a period of years, the calculation may not be entirely accurate for individuals who are non-white (the study was performed on people living in Framingham, Massachusetts, which at the time of the study was predominately Caucasian). Nevertheless, we can thank the study for our current understanding that addressing high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, diabetes, and physical inactivity decreases the risk for heart disease.
When you use the calculator, you are in fact using evidence-based research to determine your risk of heart disease. See if your doctor uses the same way to determine your risk next time you see him or her.