While everyone is at risk for heart disease, certain factors can increase an individual’s risk of developing the disease. This is why it’s important to know your individual level of risk and what you can do about it. Some risk factors for heart disease you can change, while others are beyond your control. But the more risk factors you can eliminate or reduce, the better your chances of preventing and controlling heart disease.
Controllable Risk Factors
Risk factors of heart disease that you can control include the following:
- Smoking and using other tobacco products – When you smoke, you expose your heart, lungs, and blood vessels to nicotine, carbon monoxide, and other harmful substances contained in smoke. This causes blood vessels to constrict, blood pressure to go up, and cholesterol levels to climb. In addition, smoking deprives the body’s tissues of oxygen, damages the inner lining of blood vessels, allows plaques to grow inside your arteries, and makes it more likely that dangerous blood clots will form.
- High cholesterol levels – High levels of LDL cholesterol—the so-called bad cholesterol—can increase the buildup of plaque in the arteries of the heart. It’s also unhealthy to have low levels of HDL, or “good,” cholesterol. The ideal blood cholesterol level for you depends on your age, gender, and history of heart disease, but for most people with heart disease, the target LDL cholesterol level is 100 mg/dL or below, and the target HDL cholesterol level is above 40 mg/dL for men and above 50 mg/dL for women.
- High blood pressure (hypertension) – If your blood pressure is above 130/80 mmHg for long periods of time, it can damage the blood vessels. This not only makes it more likely that cholesterol plaques will form, but it also causes the artery walls to become thicker, stiffer, and less able to expand and contract with changes in activity and other physical demands.
- Diabetes – High blood sugar levels can damage the blood vessels throughout the body, making atherosclerotic plaques more likely to develop. In fact, people with diabetes are twice as likely to have heart disease than people without diabetes.1 Poorly controlled diabetes also increases the risk of developing peripheral artery disease (PAD), eye disease, and kidney problems.
- Being overweight or obese – Carrying around too much body weight strains your heart and makes it more difficult to control high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and diabetes. Being a person with obesity—more than 20% above your ideal body weight—is even more dangerous. Obesity increases the risk of heart disease by 46% in men and 64% in women.2 Recent research also suggests that your waist size can be a predictor of cardiovascular risk, too. Women should try to keep their waist size under 35 inches, and men should aim for a waist of fewer than 40 inches.
- Physical inactivity – A lack of exercise weakens your muscles and makes it harder to control several other heart disease risk factors, including blood pressure, cholesterol levels, diabetes, obesity, and stress.
- Metabolic syndrome – The term metabolic syndrome is used to describe a cluster of traits that increase the risk of developing heart disease together. These traits include high blood sugar, high blood pressure, low levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, high blood levels of fats known as triglycerides, and excess body weight—particularly in the belly area.
- Stress – High levels of stress in your life, or a tendency to often feel angry, have also been linked to an increased risk for heart disease.
Uncontrollable Risk Factors
Risk factors of heart disease that are beyond your control include the following:
- Age – The risk of heart disease increases as you age. The risk starts to climb for men at about age 45 when 10 out of every 1,000 men develop signs of heart disease. By age 55, the risk has doubled to about 21 out of every 1,000 men. It continues to rise until, by age 85, about 74 out of every 1,000 men have heart disease. For women, the risk of heart disease also climbs with age, but the trend begins about 10 years later than in men, especially with the onset of menopause.
- Biological sex – Males are more likely to develop heart disease than females, but that difference begins to disappear after females go through menopause. In fact, it’s very important to realize that females develop heart disease and suffer heart attacks, too—just like males. In fact, heart disease is the number-one killer of females in the U.S., just as it is for males.3
- Family history of heart disease – Your risk of heart disease is approximately doubled if a parent or sibling developed heart disease early in life (before age 55 for men and age 65 for women).