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The relationship between risk factors and the cardiovascular system has been thoroughly studied. We know that they increase the development of arteriosclerosis, the underlying condition in most cardiovascular diseases. Arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, as it is commonly called, is the result of the strains and damages sustained by the walls of the arteries in the course of a lifetime. The crucial factor here is when they first appear and the extent of the damage. This is what determines our "biological" age as opposed to our chronological age, and on it depends what we are able to do, how old we look, and how well we feel.

Risk factors can accelerate and intensify the progression of arteriosclerosis. The elasticity and muscular structure of the arterial walls deteriorate and are replaced by scar tissue; lipid and calcium salt deposits enter (from the blood stream) the arterial wall. Blood clots begin to form along the interior walls; formerly elastic arteries turn into inflexible constricted tubes with thickened walls that interfere with the regular flow of oxygen and nutrients to target organs. As a result, the undernourished tissue cells of the heart muscle deteriorate and die. The outcome of this process is the impaired functioning of the myocardium, and ultimately its failure. The three organs most endangered by these complications are—the heart, brain, and kidneys.

What About Your Risk Factors?

The existence and prevalence of risk factors are fairly recent discoveries. Pioneering studies, particularly the one in Framingham, have contributed greatly to our awareness of them. In the course of the North American Pooling Project (which pooled data from the Framingham Study, the Albany, Tecumsah, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis Studies as well as those from the Chicago Gas Company and the Chicago Western Electric Company) 7,342 men between the ages of thirty and fifty-nine with no apparent health problems were examined. Of these, only 1,249 or 17% were found to be without two of the major risk factors of high blood pressure—-cigarette smoking and hypercholesteremia. 45% of the men had at least one risk factor, 30% had two, and 8% had three.

All of us know people with at least one of these risk factors, for example, overweight diabetics who smoke or chain smokers who have high blood pressure. Perhaps you yourself are part of this high-risk group without knowing it. It is in your own best interest to find out whether you are or not. Talk to your doctor about the significance of the various factors as they affect your health and your life.

We do not want to cause anxiety by our discussion of these risk factors, although we are aware that objective statements about health hazards are bound to create concern. Our purpose in calling your attention to this is to appeal to your common sense, to get you to act, to have regular physical checkups. Try to close the gap between awareness and action, what psychologists call cognitive dissonance: you know only too well the hazards of certain of your habits, yet you close your eyes to them and do nothing to change them.