Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease

What Is a Risk Factor?

A risk factor is anything that helps to develop or speeds up the developing of heart disease.

Prevention is the key to decreasing the number of deaths from cardiovascular disease. By controlling your risk factors, you can reduce the risk of death and further complications from your cardiovascular disease.

There are risk factors that cannot be changed, but it is important that you identify and control those risk factors you can change.

What Are the Major Risk Factors That Cannot Be Changed?

The following risk factors cannot be changed. Please circle the risk factors that apply to you.

  • Heredity. The chance of developing heart disease is higher if your parents and/or siblings had cardiovascular disease before the age of 40.
  • Sex. Men are more likely to have a heart attack or stroke than women of childbearing years. It is believed that female hormones have a protective effect against heart disease. In females after menopause or surgical removal of the ovaries, this protection is gone. In recent years, more women under age 40 have developed cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, probably as a result of the use of oral contraceptives and the increase in smoking in this group.
  • Age. Studies have shown that the death rate from heart disease increases with age. This may result from the aging process or long-term exposure to other risk factors.
  • Race. The risk of developing heart disease is greater in the black population than in other populations. This is because African-Americans are at greater risk for developing high blood pressure.

What Are the Major Risk Factors That Can Be Changed?

  • Smoking. Smokers are at greater risk for heart attack than non-smokers. Smoking promotes heart disease by increasing the amount of plaque build up on the walls of the arteries. Plaque is a fatty deposit that can cause arteries to narrow.
    • When a person stops smoking, the risk of heart disease drops rapidly, ten years after quitting, the risk of death from cardiovascular disease is about the same as for those who never smoked.
  • High blood pressure. High blood pressure is defined as blood pressure greater than 140/90 for at least three readings.
    • High blood pressure can cause your heart to become enlarged and will also damage blood vessels these can lead to heart attacks, strokes, or kidney failure.
  • Blood Cholesterol Levels. People who have high cholesterol levels [>200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) of blood] are at greater risk for plaque formation in their arteries. A fasting cholesterol level >240 mg/dl doubles the risk of coronary artery disease.
    • To decrease your risk of heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends a diet low in cholesterol and other fats. Medication may also be necessary when diet modification alone does not work.
  • Diabetes. Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease because uncontrolled blood sugar levels will damage the walls of the arteries permanently.
  • Obesity. Obese people may develop high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, or diabetes. These factors increase the risk of coronary artery disease.
  • Lack of Exercise. Inactivity may lead to obesity. Exercise can help reduce high blood pressure and prevent plaque from forming on the artery walls.
  • Stress. Prolonged stress over a period of time can contribute to increased smoking and alcohol use, overeating, and high blood pressure, which all increase the risk of heart disease.
  • Oral Contraceptives. If you have high cholesterol and/or high blood pressure, you should not take oral contraceptives. Women should not smoke when taking oral contraceptives, because this increases the risk of blood clot formation.
  • Alcohol. Excessive alcohol consumption can cause permanent damage to your heart muscle and its arteries. It is recommended that alcohol be consumed in moderate amounts only.