How do you know whether your arteries are smooth and free of plaque or clogged and interfering with your heart function? Unless you've been diagnosed with heart disease, you probably don't know whether your blood is flowing freely or is on the verge of becoming blocked, triggering a heart attack or stroke.
There are, though, several things you can do to assess your risk. A study released last week found that simplified risk guidelines adopted in 2007 by the American Heart Association really can determine the likelihood of a woman suffering a heart attack or dying from heart disease within the next 10 years.
The study, which used data from the Women's Health Initiative trial, found that nearly 13 percent of the women deemed to be at "high risk" did have a heart attack or died from heart disease within 10 years; those deemed to be "at risk" had a 3 percent chance, and those at "optimal risk" had just a 1 percent chance.
Here's how to determine which category you fall into:
High risk: You've been diagnosed with heart disease, diabetes, or chronic or end-stage kidney disease.
At risk: You have more than one major heart disease risk factor, such as smoking; poor diet; inactivity; obesity; family history of early heart disease; high blood pressure or cholesterol; metabolic syndrome or prediabetes; poor treadmill test results; signs of early vascular disease from imaging tests.
Optimal risk: You have no major risk factors and follow a healthy lifestyle that includes the equivalent of 30 minutes of brisk walking six days a week and getting less than 7 percent of total calories from saturated fat.
Just 4 percent of the study participants, who were ages 50 to 79, fell into the optimal-risk category. Nearly three quarters of the women fell into the "at-risk" category, many with risk factors that could be modified by making lifestyle changes. "We know that if you remedy these things, you can not only prevent heart attacks but can actually reverse some of the abnormalities that may have taken place," says Stuart Seides, associate director of cardiology at Washington Hospital Center. "So it's neither ever too early nor ever too late to focus on and attend to these risk factors." Hear what else he recommends for keeping your arteries healthy in this video interview: