(Photo: photos.com)

(Photo: photos.com)

If you think the odds of having a heart attack or stroke in your lifetime are low, you could be kidding yourself.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reveals some sobering statistics.

Even if you are at low risk of having a cardiac incident in the short term, having one or two risk factors – such as high blood pressure or smoking – still might put you at high  risk of  heart attack or stroke over the long term, when you’re much older.

Other risk factors for cardiovascular disease include  high cholesterol levels and diabetes.

According to the study, if you have any two of these risk factors at middle age (approximately 45 years of age) the chances you’ll have a major heart attack or stroke some time in your remaining lifetime are a whopping 50 percent!

But, if you take good care of yourself and make it to that age with none of those risk factors or have them under control, then your chance of having a cardiac incident is down to 1.4 percent, meaning that you could live five to 10 years longer than those with a risk factor or two.  And that’s regardless of your age, sex, or the decade you were born in.

Keeping blood pressure under control can help lowering the risk of having a heart attack or stroke (Photo: Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine)

Keeping blood pressure under control can help lowering the risk of having a heart attack or stroke (Photo: Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine)

As part of the Cardiovascular Lifetime Risk Pooling Project, this study looks at white and African-American men and women. It follows more than 250,000 participants from 18 different groups of people living in the community over a period of more than 50 years.

The risk factors for each of the participants were measured at ages 45, 55, 65 and 75 years.

Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones , chair and associate professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, heads up the study.

He says the key to keeping your chances of having a heart attack or stroke low is maintaining an optimal risk factor profile.  Dr. Lloyd-Jones considers a risk-factor profile to be optimal when you keep a total cholesterol level of less than 180 milligrams per deciliter, have an untreated blood pressure of less than 120 over less than 80,  and don’t smoke or have diabetes.

Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones (Photo: Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine)

Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones (Photo: Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine)

Even if you have just one small increase in a risk factor, such as a bump up in your cholesterol levels or blood pressure, Dr. Lloyd-Jones points out you can go from having an optimal risk factor profile to one that isn’t optimal, increasing your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

According to Dr. Lloyd-Jones, doctors usually calculate a patient’s risk of cardiovascular disease about 10 years into the future.

“We are giving incomplete and misleading risk information if we only focus on the next 10 years of someone’s life,” he says.  “With even just one risk factor, the likelihood is very large that someone will develop a major cardiovascular event that will kill them or substantially diminish their quality of life or health.”

Cardiovascular disease, Dr. Lloyd-Jones points out, doesn’t only kill people, it alters people’s lives dramatically and tremendously affects a person’s quality of life, particularly after a stroke.

If you’re a young adult, Dr. Lloyd-Jones stresses the importance of maintaining a lifestyle that will help you keep those risk factors down, lessening your chance of developing cardiovascular disease during your life.

(Photo: Q Family via Flickr)

If you're a smoker, quitting will also help reduce your risks of a cardiac event (Photo: Q Family via Flickr)

But, if you’re already into middle-age and do have some of the risk factors, Dr. Lloyd Jones says that it’s never too late to reduce your elevated risk.

He says it’s “critically important” to see your doctor, watch your cholesterol levels and blood pressure and keep them under control as best as you can.  To help control some of these risk factors, he says that a large number of clinical trials have shown there are extremely effective medications, especially those that target cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Dr. Lloyd-Jones says if your doctor prescribes any of these medications, you can reduce the risks of having a heart attack or stroke from 30 to 50 percent if you take them regularly and as prescribed and you maintain a healthy lifestyle.

The best way to keep cardiovascular disease risks under control, Dr. Lloyd-Jones advises, is that you do everything you can to prevent the development of the risk factors in the first place.

Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones shares some of the eye-opening findings of this study  on this weekend’s radio edition of Science World.  Tune in (see right column for scheduled times) or check out the interview below.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Other stories we cover on the “Science World” radio program this week include: