Though the sudden deaths of pop legend Michael Jackson and infomercial personality Billy Mays were untimely and tragic, they have provided us with yet another reminder of why we need to be aware of our cardiovascular health. A recent study published in the May issue of the International Journal of Clinical Practice found that less than one in five heart problems are caught before they become serious enough for symptoms to surface.[1]  Sometimes the only substantial indication that anything is wrong with the heart comes in the form of a heart attack.

Here are the things you need to be aware of to stop heart disease--and perhaps even reverse some of its effects--before it stops you.

Be aware of your family history. A 2007 British Medical Journal article concluded that four in 10 premature heart attacks could be prevented if the immediate family members of someone who has had a heart attack were tested for cardiovascular disease.[2] The authors of the article combed through various studies, including one in which a small subset of participants who had a family history of coronary heart disease accounted for 48 percent of all cardiac events and 72 percent of all sudden deaths within the group.

Be aware of the signs. Did you know that in 2000 researchers at Harvard Medical School determined there is a correlation between male pattern baldness and heart disease? Even neck size seems to be a predictor--with larger necks portending greater risks. High levels of C-reactive protein, homocysteine, and low-density lipoprotein, or bad cholesterol, in your blood are also indicators of a potential for heart disease. Being weary of health changes such as these can make all the difference.

Be aware of your own behavior--both past and present. You might be an angel now--non smoking, five to nine daily servings of vegetables and fruit, 30 minutes or more of exercise almost every day--but if you've sinned in the past, those transgressions could have left their mark on your blood vessels. Get your cardiovascular system checked out for any signs of damage.

If you've had a hard time giving up smoking or losing weight, here are two facts that could give some motivation: According to the American Heart Association, smokers are two to four times more likely than nonsmokers to develop heart disease; also, a study from Johns Hopkins University published in the online edition of Circulation in April 2005 revealed that the risk of a brother or sister of someone with cardiovascular disease being diagnosed with it themselves skyrockets to 60 percent if that sibling is overweight or obese.[3]

[1] Self-Reported Diagnosis of Heart Disease: Results from the SHIELD Study. Lewis et al. IJCP, the International Journal of Clinical Practice, 63.5, 726-734 (May 2009);

[2] BMJ-British Medical Journal (2007, September 11). Screening Family Members Could Prevent 4 In 10 Premature Heart Attacks;

[3] Samia Mora, Lisa R. Yanek, Taryn F. Moy, M. Daniele Fallin, Lewis C. Becker, and Diane M. Becker, Interaction of Body Mass Index and Framingham Risk Score in Predicting Incident Coronary Disease in Families, Circulation, Apr 2005; 111: 1871 - 1876