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Common risk factors for heart disease to be aware of

Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on December 14, 2020. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


Can anything be done to lower your risk of heart disease? The answer is, in many cases, “yes.” That’s because some heart disease risk factors are modifiable—meaning they can be controlled through various lifestyle changes, reducing the risk of heart disease.

Not all risk factors can be changed through lifestyle modifications, however. But it’s useful to be aware of the key risk factors associated with heart disease—modifiable or not—so you aren’t completely in the dark about the risks to your heart’s health. With that in mind, read on to learn more about the common risk factors for heart disease—and some potential steps you can take.


Check in on your heart with the at-home Heart Health Test, which measures indicators of cholesterol, blood sugar, and inflammation—all of which play key roles in one’s heart disease risk.


Risk factors for heart disease

There are some common risk factors that greatly increase your risk of developing heart disease. The American Heart Association states that heart disease risk factors fall under three categories: major, modifiable, and contributing. Your risk for heart disease increases with each heart disease risk factor you have. Not all risk factors can be controlled, but many can be.

  • Major risk factors are factors that have been scientifically proven to significantly increase the risk of heart or blood vessel disease. This category includes factors that can be modified through lifestyle changes, as well as factors that cannot be controlled.
  • Modifiable risk factors are factors that greatly increase your risk of heart disease, but they can be controlled, either through medication, dietary changes, or other lifestyle modifications.
  • Contributing risk factors are thought to increase heart disease risk, but scientific data proving that they cause heart problems is currently limited.

Keep in mind that it's important to take care of your heart health and learn about your risk factors as early as possible, since heart disease may not have any symptoms until it reaches more advanced stages.

Risk factors that cannot be controlled

People that fall under this category have a higher risk of developing heart disease.

Age

As you get older, the risk of heart disease increases. According to the National Institutes of Health, men aged 45 or older and women aged 55 or older are at increased risk for developing heart disease. The average age of having a heart attack in men is 64.5 and 70.3 in women.

Gender

While cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women, your gender makes a difference in your risk of heart disease.

Men are at higher risk for heart disease compared to women. Higher levels of the hormone estrogen may protect women against heart disease to a certain extent. After menopause, women have decreased levels of estrogen, making them more susceptible to developing heart disease.

Family history/genetics

If your family has a history of heart disease, this makes you genetically predisposed to developing heart problems. This does not mean that you’re definitely going to develop heart disease, but rather that you are at higher risk compared to someone without a family history (assuming all other factors are equivalent).

Heart conditions that are caused by certain gene defects can affect the heart muscle (resulting in a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy), or the heart’s electrical system (a condition called QT prolongation). Note that these conditions are quite rare.

Genetics also plays a role in congenital heart disease. Children with a first-degree relative with congenital heart defects have a three times higher likelihood of being born with the condition.

Other inherited conditions can result in risk factors that increase the risk of heart disease. One example is familial hypercholesterolemia, which is an inherited condition that causes high cholesterol levels. People with this condition are at increased risk for coronary artery disease early in life.

Ethnicity

Disparities exist in heart disease risk associated with different ethnicities. Black, Latinx, and Southeast Asian communities have a heightened risk of coronary artery disease in the United States. A number of factors contribute to this increased risk, including gaps in socioeconomic status, which can act as a barrier to accessing primary care.

Modifiable risk factors

Though modifiable risk factors predispose you to the development of heart disease, they can be controlled (and even eliminated, in some cases) with lifestyle changes.

High cholesterol

High blood cholesterol levels can significantly contribute to plaque buildup on artery walls in a process known as atherosclerosis. When this happens, arteries become narrow, restricting the flow of blood evenly throughout the body. In this way, if high blood pressure is left untreated, it can be a major contributor to coronary artery disease.

There are three types of cholesterol in the body that affect blood cholesterol levels.

  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL cholesterol) is considered to be “good cholesterol” as higher amounts of HDL are considered to be good for you. Low HDL levels, which do not signify good heart health, are usually caused by diabetes, lack of exercise, and smoking, among other factors.
  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL cholesterol) can negatively affect your health when levels are high, and it’s popularly known as “bad cholesterol.” LDL levels become elevated by diets that are rich in saturated fat and trans fat. You can bring LDL levels down by changing your diet to include less of these foods.
  • Triglycerides are the most common fat type in the body. In heart disease, triglycerides are elevated, along with either low HDL levels or high LDL levels.

If you have high blood cholesterol, make it a priority to manage the condition with medication and a lifestyle that includes a healthy diet and a regular exercise regimen.

Not sure what your cholesterol levels are like? Take the Everlywell at-home Cholesterol Test to find out.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure is one of the most common signs of heart disease. When blood pressure is higher than normal, it can prevent the normal flow of blood through blood vessels. This can be a dangerous condition since areas of the body where blood does not reach efficiently will be deprived of oxygen and nutrients. High blood pressure also causes significant strain on the heart to pump out blood evenly, and—eventually—the heart muscle can weaken.

If not managed, high blood pressure can lead to a heart attack, stroke, or congestive heart failure.

Managing high blood pressure with treatment and proper lifestyle, as recommended by your healthcare provider, is important in reducing your risk of heart disease due to this condition.

Diabetes

Diabetes is the inability of the body to process glucose in the blood, resulting in high blood sugar levels. Diabetic patients are in the highest heart disease risk group. The American Heart Association has estimated approximately 65% of diabetic patients over the age of 65 die of heart disease.

Diabetic patients in which blood sugar is not controlled are at much higher risk for heart disease than patients who have managed their blood sugar with medication, physical activity, and dietary changes. However, if you are diagnosed with diabetes and have controlled your blood sugar, you are still at increased risk of developing heart disease and having a stroke.

Obesity

Being overweight or obese puts you at high risk for heart disease even if you do not have any other risk factors present. This is because being overweight eventually increases other risk factors by causing high blood pressure and cholesterol through triglycerides in excess body fat.

Maintaining a healthy weight can help you reduce this risk. The American Heart Association states that even a loss of 3%-5% of your body weight can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease due to obesity.

Physical inactivity

A lifestyle with physical inactivity can lead to heart disease by increasing other risk factors. Regular exercise can improve circulation, thereby reducing strain on the heart. It can also help you control blood sugar, blood cholesterol, and body weight to prevent obesity.

Smoking

Cigarette smoking significantly increases the risk of coronary heart disease. Even if smoking is the only risk factor you have, it can still lead to a sudden heart attack or stroke. Combined with other risk factors, the risk of heart disease increases even more with smoking. Exposure to second-hand smoke can also increase the risk of developing heart disease.

Alcohol consumption

Drinking too much alcohol leads to elevated blood pressure and can cause weight gain. Since both of these are risk factors for heart disease, reducing your alcohol consumption can help reduce your risk. Men should limit alcohol consumption to two drinks per day, and women should limit themselves to no more than one drink per day, according to guidelines recommended by the American Heart Association for reducing cardiovascular risk factors.

How lifestyle changes can protect you from heart disease

Take control of reducing modifiable risk factors that can be managed with changes to your current lifestyle. Even reducing a single risk factor can go a long way in preventing heart disease.

  • Eat healthily and eliminate foods that are high in sugar, saturated fat, and sodium.
  • Get more exercise to control body weight.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Reduce your alcohol consumption.
  • Take medication to manage diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, as directed by your healthcare provider.
  • Find ways that work best for you to keep stress levels low.

Testing for heart disease risk factors

If you want to check where you stand with key risk factors for heart disease, consider taking the Everlywell at-home Heart Health Test that measures markers of blood sugar, blood cholesterol, and inflammation—with just a small sample of blood that’s easily collected with a simple finger prick. Send the sample to a lab for analysis (using the prepaid shipping label included with the kit) to get your test results and learn your numbers.


What causes heart disease?

Types of heart disease


References

1. Understand Your Risks to Prevent a Heart Attack. American Heart Association. URL. Accessed December 14, 2020.

2. Heart disease. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed December 14, 2020.

3. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed December 14, 2020.

4. Long QT syndrome. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed December 14, 2020.

5. Congenital heart defects in children. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed December 14, 2020.

6. Risk Factors For Coronary Artery Disease. StatPearls. URL. Accessed December 14, 2020.

7. Williams DR, Leavell J. The social context of cardiovascular disease: challenges and opportunities for the Jackson Heart Study. Ethn Dis. 2012;22(3 Suppl 1):S1-21.

8. Know Your Risk for Heart Disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed December 14, 2020.