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Heart Disease Health Center

Risk for Heart Attack, Stroke May Be Underestimated

Study: Someone at Low Risk for Heart Disease in the Short-Term May Be at High Risk Later in Life, if They Have Just One or Two Risk Factors
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By Cari Nierenberg
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 25, 2012 -- The method doctors use to determine a person's risk for heart disease could underestimate the future odds of heart attack and stroke.

That's because a person's risk of heart disease is currently estimated in the short-term, meaning the likelihood of having heart disease in the next 10 years.

But a new study calculates lifetime risk by measuring it across the adult age spectrum, beginning in middle age. This research estimates risks for men and women, and for African-Americans and whites. Previous estimates of heart disease have looked mainly at white men.

By using lifetime estimates of heart disease risk, this research provides a long-term view of the extent of the health problem in the U.S. now and in the future, researchers at Northwestern University say.

They argue that a short-term glimpse of risk may give some adults a false sense of security about their lifetime prospects of heart disease. The study found that a 45-year-old man or woman who is at low risk for heart disease in the next decade may be at very high risk later in life if he or she has just one or two risk factors, such as higher-than-ideal blood pressure or cholesterol levels.

"We are giving incomplete and misleading risk information if we only focus on the next 10 years of someone's life," study researcher Donald Lloyd-Jones, MD, says in a news release. He is an associate professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

"With even just one risk factor, the likelihood is very large that someone will develop a major [heart or stroke] event that will kill them or substantially diminish their quality of life," says Lloyd-Jones.

The study is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Lifetime Risk for Heart Disease

To determine lifetime risk, the researchers analyzed data from more than 250,000 adults at ages 45, 55, 65, and 75 over a 50-year period. They considered four key risks: blood pressure, cholesterol level, smoking, and diabetes.

An ideal risk-factor profile was a person who:

  • Had total cholesterol less than 180 milligrams per deciliter
  • Had blood pressure less than 120 / less than 80, without taking blood pressure medication
  • Was a non-smoker
  • Did not have diabetes

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