Many of us know basic means of preventing heart disease, but most of us continue to put ourselves at risk.

"A risk factor is something that increases your chance of having heart disease," said Joseph Paluck, St. Luke's clinical exercise physiologist, during one of their regular health talk sessions held at the Tamaqua YMCA.

"Heart disease (also called coronary artery disease) involves damage to arteries, blood vessels, that carry oxygen-rich blood through your body. Things like smoking or unhealthy cholesterol levels can damage arteries. You can't control some risk factors, such as age and family history or heart disease. But most are things you can control."

During the health talk, Paluck discussed numerous health factors that can affect risk factors.

"Cholesterol is a fatty substance in your blood that can build up inside your arteries and block or limit the blood flow to your heart or brain," said Paluck. "Your risk of heart disease goes up if you don't have enough HDL cholesterol. HDL is 'good' cholesterol that clears the bad cholesterol away. You are also at risk if you have high levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol or triglycerides (another substance that can build up).

"Smoking is one of the most important risk factors people have the ability to change," stressed Paluck. "Smoking damages your arteries, as well as reducing blood flow to your heart or brain. It also greatly increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, lung disease and cancer. If you keep smoking after a heart attack, you can double your risk of a second heart attack.

"High blood pressure occurs when blood pushes too hard against artery walls as it passes through the arteries," said Paluck. "This damages the artery lining and raises your risk of heart attack, (also known as acute myocardial infarction or AMI), and especially stroke."

Paluck pointed out that negative emotions play a factor as well.

"Stress, pent-up anger, and other negative emotions have been linked to heart disease. Over time, these emotions could raise your heart disease risk."

Explaining metabolic syndrome, Paluck said, "this is caused by a combination of risk factors that put you at extra high risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. You have metobolic syndrome if you have three or more of the following: low HDL cholesterol; high triglycerides; high blood pressure; high blood sugar; and extra weight around the waist.

"Diabetes occurs when you have high levels of sugars (glucose) in your blood," said Paluck. "This can also damage arteries if not kept under control. Having diabetes also makes you more likely to have a silent heart attack – one without symptoms."

Excess weight makes other risk factors, such as diabetes, more likely.

"Excess weight around the waist or stomach increases your heart disease risk the most," stressed Paluck.

Pointing out the importance of physical activity, Paluck said, "when you are not active, you're more likely to develop diabetes, high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, and excess weight.

"The purpose of these talks is to educate the community regarding preventative measures and healthy living, with the ultimate goal of keeping people out the hospital," said Bill Moyer, president of St. Luke's Hospital – Miner's Campus in Coaldale.

Future talks are planned at the Tamaqua YMCA.

The two free talks planned next week are Benefits of Diet Modification scheduled Wednesday, Feb. 27, from 5-5:30 p.m. and Emergency Care for Pre-School Children scheduled Thursday, Feb. 28, from noon to 12:30 p.m.

No reservations or registrations are needed for the free talks. Organizers added that anyone can simply show up.