When it comes to heart attacks, most people think a steady diet of greasy food and sedentary living is to blame.
While it’s true that diet and lifestyle play a role (not to mention, family history), there are other, less common factors linked with heart trouble.
Here are some weird things that you would never think could potentially harm your heart.
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A 2001 study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that people in lower-income neighborhoods were up to three times more likely to have heart disease than peers with similar incomes, education, and jobs living in wealthier communities.
“It’s very true and something you can’t do much about other than change where you live or spend time in places where the air quality isn’t so toxic,” says Malissa J. Wood, M.D., co-director of the Corrigan Women’s Heart Health Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center.
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One 2012 study linked the popular antibiotic azithromycin (commonly dispensed in packages called Z-Paks), to a higher risk of heart attack death, particularly in people with heart disease.
The evidence was not strong enough to change current practice, says Dr. Wood, although it is a good idea to talk with your doctor about alternative antibiotics if you have heart disease.
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A 2012 study of 23,000 people in the journal Heart found that those taking calcium supplements had a higher heart attack risk than those who didn’t, although dietary intake didn’t seem to be a problem.
(Consult your doctor about taking calcium; some research suggests calcium can protect the heart.)
“I tell patients to get calcium in their diet,” Dr. Wood says. “Eat oily fish twice a week along with other foods that have calcium and get outdoors for vitamin D.”
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If you are diagnosed with flu or another respiratory tract infection, your odds of having a heart attack are five times higher during the three days after diagnosis than it would be otherwise. The reason: Infections can bring on an inflammatory response, which can trigger a heart attack or stroke. A flu vaccine may help protect against infection-induced heart stress.
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“In certain patients, psoriasis is a risk factor for heart attack comparable to diabetes,” says Joel M. Gelfand, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania. Patients with severe psoriasis, a skin condition that usually requires medical treatment, are more likely to smoke, be overweight, and have high blood pressure, but Dr. Gelfand’s research shows that psoriasis is an independent risk factor. He points out that psoriasis is an autoimmune disorder that may cause chronic inflammation, which can trigger a heart attack.
In fact, autoimmune diseases are a risk factor in general. Dr. Wood says the number-one cause of death among people with lupus is heart attack.
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A negative relationship with your significant other can be bad for your heart, literally. According to a study by epidemiologists at University College London, relationship problems can up your risk of having a heart attack by 34%.
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Low HDL cholesterol
A study of nearly 7,000 people led by a researcher at Indiana University analyzed the relationship between HDL, or good cholesterol, and major coronary events. The study concluded that low HDL was the third strongest predictor of coronary events, after prior heart disease and age.
“If young people have heart attacks, I can almost always tell you they have low HDL,” says Dr. Wood, author of Smart at Heart. Dr. Wood says there are ways to increase good cholesterol. The two most powerful tools? Exercise and weight loss.
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A study of elderly patients in Rotterdam in the Netherlands found that having weak kidneys, even without full-blown kidney disease, can put you at a significantly higher risk for heart attack.
Another study of 10,000 men found that those with chronic kidney disease had a two-fold greater risk of heart attack than those who didn’t.
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Exposure to heavy traffic—whether you're traveling by car, bike, or public transit—may double your risk of a heart attack, according to a German study. Another earlier study found that death from cardiopulmonary causes was nearly twice as high among people living close to a major road.
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Numerous studies have shown that heart patients are at an increased risk of heart attack for at least a week after stopping aspirin therapy or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). "If you have or are at risk for heart disease and want to stop taking aspirin, do so gradually and under the supervision of a doctor," warns Matthew Sorrentino, MD, a cardiologist at the University of Chicago.
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The link between depression and heart attacks is well documented, says Dr. Wood. Heart attack survivors who are depressed have a higher risk of having another compared to those without depression, she says.
A 2009 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that women with depression were twice as likely to develop heart disease over time than those who weren’t depressed.
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In one 2005 study, researchers followed British government workers and found that people who didn’t think their bosses considered their viewpoints or who felt that they weren’t part of decision making were more likely to develop heart disease than those with more control.
Other studies have linked job strain with a 23% increase in risk as well.
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Studies have shown that people with gum disease can have up to 25% greater risk of heart disease than people with good dental health.
The connection is thought to be mouth bacteria, which can trigger chronic inflammation in the blood vessels. “If you have disease in the vessels in one place in your body, you have them in other vessels as well,” Dr. Wood says.
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Although most people with diabetes fear complications like amputation or vision loss, one of the greatest risks is actually heart disease.
People with diabetes are about two to four times as likely to die of heart disease than their same-age peers without diabetes.
Hormone treatment for prostate cancer can increase the likelihood of sudden death from heart attack, according to a 2006 observational study by researchers at Harvard Medical School. The researchers say the finding does not prove a direct link between the two but that it should be taken into account when considering prostate cancer treatment.