Risk Factors for Heart Disease


It's time to get heart smart.

Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Coronary artery disease occurs when plaque builds up along artery walls (a process called atherosclerosis or "hardening of the arteries"), reducing the flow of blood that nourishes the heart muscle. Inside the blood vessels, a cap forms an irregular surface over the fatty plaque. If the plaque is unstable, it bursts through the cap. The body responds as it would to any other injury: it forms blood clots, which can block blood flow and cause chest pain (known as angina) or a heart attack (also called a myocardial infarction, or MI).

Risk Factors

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both women and men in the United States. Men and women share the same risk factors for heart disease.

Management of risk factors for heart disease can reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke. Talk with your health care provider about your risk factors and what you can do to have a more heart healthy lifestyle.

Risk factors beyond your control

Heredity and family history
The chance of developing :hardening of the arteries" is greater if close family members also have this problem.

Heart disease can occur at any age; however, the incidence increases with age. There is a greater risk for women over 55 or men over 45 years old.

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. 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.

Race, ethnicity and culture
Afican Americans have the highest rate of high blood pressure and stroke. Native Americans have more high blood pressure pressure and heart disease than Caucasians. Latino and Asian Americans have a high incidence of high blood pressure.

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 monoxide.
  • 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. High blood pressure may be caused by things such as diet, excessive alcohol use, being overweight or smoking. High blood pressure is characterized by blood pressure readings of 130/80 or higher. Ideal blood pressure is 120/80 or less.

Lack of Exercise
The cardiovascular system, requires regular exercise to work efficiently. Aerobic exercise is recommended for everyone. Walking, biking, and swimming are examples of aerobic exercise.

For your health, it's important to exercise aerobically at least 3 to 4 times a week for 30 minutes. 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. Before beginning any exercise program, consult a physician.

People with diabetes have a two to seven times greater risk of getting 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. Being overweight or obese can increase your blood pressure, blood cholesterol levels and the chance of developing diabetes.

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.