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Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Heart disease refers to several different problems you can have with your heart. One of the most common is coronary artery disease, which involves damage to the heart arteries. This damage happens as people get older, but it can be worse if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or other problems described below. If you have coronary artery disease, you might have a heart attack, where a blockage in the artery causes blood to stop flowing. That can damage your heart muscle and lead to congestive heart failure and other heart issues. The coronary arteries provide the oxygen your heart needs to pump blood to the rest of your body.

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of having a disease. Risk factors such as smoking or high cholesterol levels can damage arteries. You can’t control some heart risk factors, such as your age or having a family history of heart disease. But there are many heart risk factors you can control. This can reduce your risk for heart disease. Let’s look a little closer at how you can control your risk factors to try and prevent a heart attack.

Unhealthy diet

When you eat a fatty meal, the food might contain saturated fats, trans fats, or cholesterol. All of these have been linked to heart disease such as coronary artery disease. By cutting back on saturated fat and trans fat, you can lower your LDL ("bad") cholesterol and triglyceride levels. LDL is one of the main substances that causes heart attacks. Stay away from most trans fatty acids by eating less of these foods:

  • Margarine

  • Cookies

  • Crackers

  • French fries

  • Doughnuts

  • Other snack foods that have partially hydrogenated oils

Replace less healthy foods by eating a diet with a lot of:

  • Fruits

  • Legumes

  • Vegetables

  • Whole grains

  • Nuts

  • Lean fish or lean animal protein

The best diet for preventing heart disease is a vegan or vegetarian diet. But be careful! There are many foods that are unhealthy, even if they come from plants. Also, drinking too much alcohol also raises the risk for heart disease. It can raise blood pressure levels. And it raises triglyceride levels.

Unhealthy cholesterol levels

For some people, even if they eat a healthy diet, their cholesterol might be high. This can happen if you have diabetes, are not physically active, or have a family history of high cholesterol. Cholesterol can build up along the artery walls. This is called plaque. Over time, plaque narrows the arteries. This reduces blood flow to your heart or brain. If a blood clot forms or a piece of plaque breaks off, it can block the artery. This can cause a heart attack or stroke. Your risk of heart disease goes up if you have high levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol. Or if you have high levels of triglycerides. This is another fatty substance that can build up. You’re also at risk if you have low HDL ("good") cholesterol. HDL helps clear the bad cholesterol away. You're at risk if you have any of these: 

  • HDL cholesterol of 40 mg/dL or lower

  • LDL cholesterol of 100 mg/dL or higher

  • Triglycerides of 150 mg/dL or higher

Lack of physical activity

You can lower your risk of heart disease if you are active and moving. If you do not do any exercise now, even walking for 5 to 10 minutes a day can make a big difference. Once you have started, try to build up to at least 30 minutes a day 5 days a week. Adding some light weights to your exercise can also help bone health.

When you are not active, you are more likely to develop heart disease and also diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and extra weight.


This is the most important risk factor you can change. You’re at risk if you use any kind of tobacco or nicotine. This includes:

  • Cigarettes

  • E-cigarettes with nicotine

  • Chewing tobacco

  • Cigars

  • Pipe smoking

If you smoke, it's never too late to help your heart. Ask your healthcare provider about nicotine replacement products and smoking cessation support. Quitting smoking is the single biggest way to reduce your risk for coronary artery disease.

For more information and support with quitting tobacco

High blood pressure

High blood pressure is very common as people get older. When blood pushes too hard against artery walls it can damage them. Scar tissue forms as it heals. This makes the arteries stiff and weak. Plaque sticks to the scarred tissue. This narrows and hardens the arteries. High blood pressure also makes your heart work harder to get blood out to the body. It raises your risk of heart attack and especially stroke. The brain tissue is very sensitive to high blood pressure damage. High blood pressure (hypertension) is defined as a systolic blood pressure of 140 mmHg or greater or a diastolic of 90 mmHg or greater in people at ow risk. It is also greater than 130/80 mmHg in people at high risk. People at high risk include those who are older than 65. It also includes people who have diabetes, chronic kidney disease, or known cardiovascular disease such as coronary artery disease, past heart attack, heart failure, or stroke.  

Chronic kidney disease

Chronic kidney disease is another cardiac risk factor. Talk with your healthcare provider about ways to control kidney disease if you have it.

Negative emotions

Chronic stress, pent-up anger, and other negative emotions have been linked to heart disease. This is because stress increases the levels of a hormone that increase the demand on your heart. Over time, these emotions could raise your heart disease risk.

Metabolic syndrome

This is caused by a mix of certain risk factors. It puts you at extra high risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. You have metabolic syndrome if you have 3 or more of these:

  • Low HDL cholesterol

  • High triglycerides

  • High blood pressure

  • High blood sugar

  • Extra weight around the waist


Diabetes occurs when you have high levels of sugar (glucose) in your blood. This can damage arteries if not kept under control. Having diabetes also makes you more likely to have a silent heart attack—one without any symptoms.

The A1C test is a common blood test that diagnoses type 1 and type 2 diabetes. It can also check how well you are managing diabetes. If your A1C level is between 5.7 and 6.4, you have prediabetes. Once your A1C reaches 6.5, you have diabetes. Your healthcare provider will help you figure out what your A1C should be. Your target number will depend on your age, general health, and other factors. Your treatment plan may need changes if your current number is too high.

Extra weight

Extra weight makes other risk factors, such as diabetes, more likely. Extra weight around the waist or stomach increases your heart disease risk the most.

You are at risk if your:

  • Waist measures more than 35 inches (women) or 40 inches (men)

  • Body mass index (BMI) is higher than 25.

Reduce your risk of heart disease by adopting a healthier lifestyle. Veterans can use their My HealtheVet account to track their diet and exercise habits, as well as blood pressure levels online. If you don’t have an account already, register today.

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 6/1/2020
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
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