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Risk Factors for Heart Disease

It is important you know your personal risk for heart disease. Every risk factor counts. Risk factors are conditions or habits that increase your chances of developing a disease or having it worsen. The more risk factors you have, the higher your risk for developing heart disease.

There are a number of factors that may put you at risk – some are controllable, others are not.

Uncontrollable risk factors include:

  • Age – Heart disease is more likely to occur as you get older, especially after age 65.
  • Male gender – Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women do, and men have heart attacks earlier in life than women. However, beginning at age 70, the risk is equal for men and women.
  • Family history of heart disease – You have an increased risk of developing heart disease if you have a parent with a history of heart disease, especially if they were diagnosed before age 50. Ask your doctor when it’s appropriate for you to start screenings for heart disease so it can be detected and treated early.
  • Race – African Americans, American Indians, and Mexican Americans are more likely to have heart disease than Caucasians.

Controllable risk factors include:

  • Smoking – One the best things you can do for your heart health is to stop smoking. It contributes to plaque formation in the arteries, which may lead to a heart attack or stroke. There is nothing easy about this, but with a plan of action, you can do it. Start to become aware of your personal “triggers” to smoking and replace them with new activities. Eating healthy and starting an exercise program can also help. Do not be afraid to use quit aids, either over-the -counter or prescription, group or individual counseling to help you through this.
  • Abnormal Cholesterol  Keeping your cholesterol levels healthy is a great way to keep your heart healthy – and lower your chances of getting heart disease or having a stroke. Cholesterol can be tricky to understand, though, because not all is bad for you. Some is actually good for you. Your total cholesterol – LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and triglycerides – should be 200 mg/dl or lower. LDL (bad) cholesterol should be less than 100 mg/dL and HDL (good) cholesterol greater than 50 mg/dL. Your doctor can provide specific guidelines.
  • High Blood Pressure (greater than 120/80 mmHg)  – High blood pressure means your heart has to work harder than normal. Left untreated, it can weaken artery walls, leading to atherosclerosis, a narrowing of the arteries caused by fatty deposits. Adults and children should have their blood pressure measured each year. Those with borderline pressures should be measured more frequently.
  • Obesity (BMI higher than 30 kg/m2)  Obesity makes the heart work harder, increasing risk for heart disease. In many cases, it also indicates a sedentary lifestyle, and a low HDL level.
  • Diabetes (HbA1c greater than 7.0) – If not properly controlled, diabetes can contribute to significant heart damage, including heart attacks and death. Control diabetes through a healthy diet, exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and taking medications as prescribed by your doctor.
  • Physical Inactivity – Many of us lead sedentary lives, exercising infrequently or not at all. People who don't exercise have higher rates of death and heart disease compared to people who perform even mild to moderate amounts of physical activity. Exercise is an important part of reducing your risk for heart disease. Most people should exercise 30 minutes a day, at moderate intensity, on most days. 

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