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Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Understanding heart risk factors can help you and your family  

Several risk factors contribute to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), a condition in which plaque that contains cholesterol is deposited on the inside walls of the arteries. Some risk factors can be reduced; others can't be modified.

Risk Factors You Can Change:

Risk Factors You Can't Change:

Risk Factors You Can Change:

The likelihood of having coronary artery disease doubles in men with diabetes and triples in women. You must following a physician's prescribed regimen for diet, weight control, medication and exercise to minimize this risk. 

High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure, or hypertension, causes the heart to work harder as it tries to pump blood through narrowed vessels. Left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to :

  • stroke
  • an enlarged heart that becomes ineffective
  • other damaged organs, especially kidneys
  • hardening of the arteries
  • Regular exercise, healthy diet, medications and regular check-ups with a physician can minimize this risk.

High Cholesterol or Triglyceride Levels
There are two main fats (or lipids) in the blood - cholesterol and triglyceride.

  • There are two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein, called HDL (or "good" cholesterol), and low-density lipoprotein, called LDL (or "bad" cholesterol). If the LDL cholesterol level in the blood is too high, it tends to be deposited on the walls of arteries - especially those in the heart. This along with other substances such as white blood cells can create atherosclerosis.
  • HDL carries cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver where it is processed and removed from the body. Elevated levels of LDL, along with decreased levels of HDL, have been shown to promote the development of heart disease. Conversely, reducing the LDL level and raising the HDL level significantly reduces the risk of heart disease.
  • Another blood lipid that may cause heart disease is triglyceride. A high triglyceride level often accompanies higher total cholesterol. Limiting the amount of sugars, starches and alcohol can lower triglyceride levels. 

Obesity is weighing more than 30 percent over ideal body weight. This increases blood pressure, puts strain on the heart, elevates total cholesterol level and lowers HDL cholesterol - all factors that can lead to heart disease. Weight loss and exercise, properly supervised by a physician, can increase HDL or "good" cholesterol and reduce the fatty deposits that form in arteries. 

Smoking is probably the most significant risk factor for heart disease. It increases heart rate, blood pressure and tightening of arteries, causing reduced blood flow to the heart. Carbon-monoxide levels in your blood are also increased by smoking, depriving your heart and other tissues of oxygen. A smoker's risk of developing heart disease is three to four times that of nonsmokers. Once a smoker has a heart attack, he or she is more likely to die from it and is also more likely to die suddenly (within an hour) than a nonsmoker.

Risk Factors You Can't Modify  

Age and Gender
Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women. However, the danger has increased for women every year since 1984, and cardiovascular disease has claimed more female than male lives. The risk for coronary artery disease and heart attack increases with age, regardless of gender. Before the age of 45, women are 10 times less likely to have heart attacks than men. But, after 45, heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for women. 

Family History
Family history has been shown to play an important role in cardiovascular disease. When parents or siblings develop coronary artery disease before age 50, this risk factor doubles the likelihood of developing the disease early in life. In fact, the risk is higher if you are a man with a relative who died of a heart attack before age 70.  


For More Information . . .
hand holding heart Learn more about coronary artery disease
video Video on coronary artery surgery
calculator Are you at risk for coronary artery disease?

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