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Heart Disease Risk Factors

Many factors determine whether one has, or risks getting, coronary artery disease. Most are controllable, but several are not. By making lifestyle changes to avoid adding to risk factors you can lower the overall risk of coronary artery disease. Learn more below about the risk factors for heart disease and how to make heart healthy lifestyle choices.


Risk factors beyond your control

Heredity and family history
The chance of developing heart disease is greater if family members have or have had heart disease.

Heart disease can occur at any age; however, the incidence increases with age.

Men and women share the same risk factors for heart disease, but specific risks vary. For example, diabetes, high blood pressure and cigarette smoking are more powerful in contributing to heart disease in women than in men. Changes in lifestyle that reduce these risk factors have been shown to reduce risks equally in men and women.

Men are more likely to develop heart disease earlier in life than women. However, women are at a higher risk for heart disease after menopause.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women and more women than men die from heart disease.


Risk factors that can be controlled

People who smoke or use tobacco products are twice as likely to develop heart disease as non-smokers of the same age, sex and similar family history. Smoking just four cigarettes per day increases the risk of sudden cardiac death.

Smoking leads to heart disease in a number of ways:

  • It decreases the amount of oxygen in the blood and replaces it with carbon dioxide.
  • Nicotine, a drug found in tobacco, causes the blood vessels in the heart and throughout the body to narrow. This may result in low blood flow or cause complete obstruction of an already narrow artery.
  • Smoking increases atherosclerosis by damaging the artery wall, allowing for fatty (cholesterol) deposits.

High cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fatty substance made by the body and found in certain foods. While your body needs a certain amount of cholesterol, too much can result in a buildup on artery walls. This buildup, called plaque, narrows the arteries and can cause blockages.

High blood pressure (hypertension)
Blood pressure is the force the blood places against the artery walls as the heart beats and pumps blood throughout your body. If your blood pressure is too high, it adds to the workload of the heart and arteries. High blood pressure may be caused by things such as diet, stress, being overweight or smoking.

Lack of Exercise
The heart, like any other muscle, requires regular exercise to work efficiently. Aerobic exercise is recommended for heart conditioning. This form of exercise includes walking, biking, and swimming are examples of aerobic exercise.

For your health, it's important to exercise at least five times a week for 30 minutes a time. This exercise may be completed in one continuous session, or done in several shorter sessions. A balance of aerobic exercise and being active throughout your day will help you reach your fitness goals. Muscle strengthening exercise also decreases your risk for coronary artery disease. Before beginning any exercise program, consult a physician.

People with diabetes have a two to seven times greater risk of getting heart disease. Women with diabetes are especially prone to premature heart disease. Diabetes can also increase cholesterol levels. High blood pressure and obesity are more common with people who have diabetes. Good management of diabetes through diet, medication, weight control and exercise is essential for decreasing the complications that the disease can cause.

If you are overweight, your heart has to work harder to pump blood to your body. You increase your risk of having high blood pressure or diabetes if you are overweight, especially if most of your fat is in the abdomen.

Stress, whether physical, emotional or work-related, increases your heart's workload. Stress causes small arteries throughout your body to contract, creating a rise in heart rate and blood pressure. Stress cannot be removed from life, but its effect can be controlled. Learning to identify and deal with the sources of stress will reduce the chance of developing heart and other health problems.