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Pfizer Inc. (PFE), Merck & Co., Inc. (MRK), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ): Top Risk Factors for Heart Disease

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Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. In 2010, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 597,689 people in the U.S. died as a direct result of heart disease, a broad and encompassing term that includes diseases of your blood vessels, heart arrhythmias, heart infections, and congenital heart defects. By comparison, the fourth through 10th most common causes of death combined (including stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, accidents, and influenza/pneumonia) don’t even add up to the number of deaths claimed by heart disease on an annual basis.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As you might suspect, being the leading cause of death in the U.S., untold amounts of money and research has gone into ways to improve patient’s quality of life and to understand what risk factors exist that trigger one or multiple facets of this disease.

Keeping that in mind, I propose to look at the 10 most common risk factors that contribute to heart disease as outlined by the Mayo Clinic and the National Institutes of Health. “Why?” you ask? For two reasons. One, knowledge is power. The more you understand what the risk factors are, and whether you are a higher-risk candidate in the first place, the more you can do to reduce your chances of developing heart disease. Secondly, in addition to taking care of your personal health, the well-being of your financial health is also important. At The Motley Fool we’re always looking for ways of identifying companies that are making a difference in the health-care industry with their treatment options, and there are few instances with more opportunity than in treating and/or preventing heart disease symptoms.

Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE)Without further ado, here are the 10 most common risk factors for heart disease (in no particular order):

1. Hypertension
You may know hypertension by its less-scientific name, high blood pressure. The downside of having consistently high blood pressure is that it tends to thicken and harden arteries over time and can shrink blood vessels, making it harder for your heart to pump blood throughout your body. A study released by the CDC in September 2012 highlighted the dangers of this symptom in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. In that report, the CDC notes that 66.9 million American adults (30% of the population) suffers from high blood pressure, of which more than half (53.5%) do not have their hypertension under control and another 39.4% of Americans with hypertension are unaware they even have high blood pressure!

What unique therapy might be called upon to help stave off a rise in hypertension? There are more than a handful of choices, and it could take some time before physicians find out what type of therapy (i.e., ACE inhibitors, beta blockers, calcium-channel blockers, renin inhibitors, and so on) works best from person to person. One drug that I have my eye on for continued growth is Forest Laboratories‘ beta blocker, Bystolic. It works by blocking specific nerve and hormonal signals to the heart and blood vessels, causing blood vessels to relax and blood to flow more easily. Sales of the drug grew by 17% year-over-year in the first quarter and should be able to grow by double digits for the foreseeable future.

2. High blood cholesterol
Although two separate risk factors, you’ll often see high cholesterol and hypertension go hand-in-hand. Specifically, low-density lipoproteins, or LDL-cholesterol, is the one people need to watch out for. This “bad” cholesterol can lead to the formation of plaques or atherosclerosis in blood vessels, hardening them over time and making it difficult for the heart to pump blood throughout the body. As equally scary as the hypertension statistics, the CDC notes that 71 million persons have high LDL-cholesterol levels, and slightly more than half aren’t doing anything to adequately bring their LDL-cholesterol under control.

I know I’ve beaten a dead horse with this drug lately, but Liptruzet, the LDL-reducing drug that combines Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE)‘s now generic statin Lipitor with Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE:MRK)‘s cholesterol absorption inhibitor Zetia, could be a monster treatment moving forward. Separately, Zetia and Lipitor reduced LDL cholesterol levels by 20% and 37%-54% in clinical studies. Liptruzet, though, further boosted that range to an LDL-reduction of 53%-61% while also boosting high-density lipoprotein production (the good type of cholesterol).

3. Your age
As you’ll see, some of the risk factors on this list are easy to work with through a change in lifestyle habits. Your age, unfortunately, is not one of them. No matter how many times you want to celebrate that 29th birthday, you’re always growing older, and the risk of developing a type of heart disease grows as you age. In fact, according to the Texas Heart Institute, approximately four in every five cardiovascular deaths occurs in someone over age 65. As we age, our blood vessels can damage more easily and the muscle around our heart can thicken, which makes it tougher for the heart to pump blood. Obviously, staying active and eating right will help stave off certain aspects of this risk factor, but ultimately, there’s nothing we can do about getting older.

4. Your gender
This one is a bit tricky, because it tends to even out as we age, but generally speaking, men are prone to getting heart disease than women. According to the National Institutes of Health, this is because estrogen provides women with some level of heart disease symptom prevention before menopause. However, once menopause occurs in women and estrogen production dips, the probability of developing one or more of the risk factors associated with heart disease shoots way up for women. By age 65, the chance of developing one or more of the risk factors associated with heart disease is equal between men and women.

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