According to the American Heart Association®, extensive clinical and statistical studies have identified factors that increase your risk of heart disease and heart attack. Some of these risk factors can be modified, treated or controlled, and some cannot. The more risk factors you have, the greater your odds of developing heart disease.

Heart Disease Facts:

  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women.
  • About 600,000 Americans die from heart disease each year (1 in 4).
  • Every 34 seconds, someone in the United States suffers a heart attack, while each minute someone dies from a heart disease-related event.
  • Half of the victims of sudden cardiac death are under the age of 65.
  • There are almost 8 million Americans alive who have had a heart attack.
  • 42% of women who have had heart attacks die within 1 year, compared to 24% of men.
  • 267,000 women die each year from heart attacks, nearly six times more than the number of women who die from breast cancer.

Major risk factors that can’t be changed:

Increasing age – More than 83 percent of people who die of heart disease are 65 or older. At older ages, women who have heart attacks are more likely than men are to die from them within a few weeks.

Male gender – Men have a greater risk of heart attacks than women, and they tend to have heart attacks earlier in life. Even after menopause, when women’s death rate from heart disease increases, it is not as great as men’s.

Heredity (including race) – Children of parents with heart disease are more likely to develop it themselves. African Americans have more severe high blood pressure and a higher risk of heart disease than Caucasians. The risk of heart disease is also higher among Mexican-Americans, American Indians, native Hawaiians and some Asian-Americans. This is partly due to higher rates of obesity and diabetes. Most people with a strong family history of heart disease have one or more risk factors. Just as you can’t control your age, sex and race, you can’t control your family history. Therefore, it’s even more important to treat and control any other risk factors you might have.

Major risk factors that can be modified, treated or controlled through lifestyle changes or medication:

Smoking – A smoker’s risk of developing heart disease is two to four times that of nonsmokers. Cigarette smoking is a powerful independent risk factor for sudden cardiac death in patients with heart disease; smokers have about twice the risk of nonsmokers. People who smoke cigars or pipes seem to have a higher risk of death from heart disease (and possibly stroke), but their risk isn’t as great as a cigarette smoker’s. Exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk of heart disease even for nonsmokers.

No matter how long you’ve smoked, quitting will help you live longer. People who stop smoking before age 50 cut their risk of dying in the next 15 years in half compared with those who continue to smoke. Former smokers enjoy a better quality of life with fewer illnesses from cold and flu viruses, better self-reported health, and reduced rates of bronchitis and pneumonia.

High cholesterol – As blood cholesterol rises, so does the risk of heart disease. When other risk factors, such as high blood pressure and smoking are present, this risk increases even more. An individual’s cholesterol level is affected by age, sex, heredity and diet.

If your cholesterol level is high, talk with your physician about things you can do to lower your cholesterol, including diet and lifestyle changes, starting an exercise program and possibly even taking cholesterol-lowering medications.

High blood-pressure – High blood pressure increases your heart’s workload, causing the heart muscle to thicken and become stiffer. It also increases your risk of stroke, heart attack, kidney failure and congestive heart failure. When high blood-pressure exists with obesity, smoking, high cholesterol or diabetes, the risk of heart attack or stroke increases several times.

If you have high blood pressure, there is a lot you can do to reduce it, but first you need to work with your doctor to determine the right course of treatment. It may include diet and lifestyle changes, quitting smoking, reducing the amount of alcohol you drink and taking medication to control your high blood pressure.

Physical inactivity – An inactive lifestyle is a risk factor for heart disease. Regular, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity helps prevent heart and blood vessel disease. The more vigorous the activity, the greater the benefits. However, even moderate-intensity activities help if done regularly and long-term. Physical activity can help control cholesterol, diabetes and obesity, as well as help to lower blood pressure in some people.

Increasing your level of activity can be as simple as adding a 30-minute walk to your daily routine. However, it is important to consult your physician before starting any exercise program.

Obesity and being overweight – People who have excess body fat – especially if the majority of it is at the waist – are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke even if they have no other risk factors. Excess weight forces the heart to work harder. It also raises blood pressure and cholesterol while lowering HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. It also increases your chances of developing diabetes. While losing weight can be difficult, even a 10-pound reduction can lower your risk of heart disease.

Diabetes – Diabetes seriously increases your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Even when glucose (blood sugar) levels are under control, diabetes increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, and the risks are even greater if blood sugar is not well controlled. About three-quarters of people with diabetes die from some form of heart or blood vessel disease. If you have diabetes, it is extremely important to work with your physician to manage it and control any other risk factors that you can.

Other factors that may contribute to heart disease risk:

Stress – An individual’s response to stress may be a contributing factor for heart disease. Some scientists have noted a relationship between heart disease risk and how people cope with stress. For example, people under stress may overeat, start smoking or smoke more than they otherwise would.

Alcohol – Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure, cause heart failure and lead to stroke. It can also contribute to high triglycerides, cancer and other diseases, and it can produce irregular heartbeats.

Prevention/Protecting Your Heart:

  • Eat a diet that is low in salt, low in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Eat a diet that is rich in fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Exercise 3-5 times a week.
  • Don’t smoke or drink alcohol.
  • Get plenty of sleep; ideally 7-9 hours a night.
  • Get regular health screenings: blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and diabetes.