Primary Risk Factors for Heart Disease


One of the best ways to evaluate your heart health is to understand the main causes of heart disease. In doing so, you learn how to minimize your risk of a coronary event (i.e., heart attack). Doing so can also help lower your risk of other health problems, including stroke, blood clots, and related health conditions.

The term "heart disease" can refer to several heart conditions, including angina, arrhythmias and congenital heart defects. However, it primarily refers to coronary artery disease.

Coronary heart disease is caused by atherosclerosis - a process by which fats and cholesterol build-up and cause blood vessels to become hard and brittle. This can lead to clogged arteries and ultimately a heart attack or stroke.

That said, here are the primary risk factors for cardiovascular disease that most people have the ability to control.

Smoking Overworks Your Heart and Hardens Your Arteries

Today, most people understand that smoking is bad for you. But, while most people understand the connection between smoking and lung cancer, many people may not realize that smoking also has a negative effect on your heart.

Nicotine, the addictive substance in cigarettes (including e-cigarettes), increases your heart rate and blood pressure. It can do serious damage to your heart and arteries.

Cigarettes also produce carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen in your bloodstream which causes your heart to work harder to provide oxygen to your entire body.

In addition to making your heart work harder, smoking damages the lining of your arteries. This causes an increase in the buildup of fatty material in your artery walls. This buildup can increase blood pressure and lead to angina, strokes or heart attacks.

Breathing second-hand smoke has the same effects on a person's risk of heart disease.

E-cigarettes Can Cause Numerous Health Issues Learn Why Consumers Have Filed Thousands of E-cigarette Lawsuits

Physical Inactivity and Obesity Are Bad For Your Heart

Many of us do not get enough exercise. The sedentary lifestyles of modern-day are having a poor impact on our hearts. Just like other muscles in your body, your heart needs regular exercise to keep it strong and healthy.

Inactivity can lead to all sorts of problems, including:

  • Excessive weight gain
  • Increased lipids (fats and waxy substances) in your blood
  • Hypertension
  • Stress
  • Deep-vein thrombosis

However, exercising regularly can reduce all of these risk factors and significantly improve your chances of avoiding heart failure down the road.

Poor Diets Lead to Poor Heart Health

If you exercise but continue eating unhealthy foods, you're still at risk of developing heart disease. In particular, a diet high in saturated fats, trans fats, and refined carbohydrates will dramatically increase your chances of experiencing a coronary event at some point in your lifetime.

These "bad fats" are found in popular food items, including various dairy and beef products, confections, and snack foods. It can be hard to avoid them. But, the growing awareness of heart health has led to more heart-healthy options void of unhealthy fats.

It's also important to watch your intake of sodium (salt) which can lead to high blood pressure/hypertension.

Unsure of what to eat? It's actually fairly simple. Stick to vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish and lean poultry or game meats. You should also avoid drinking a lot of alcohol.

Other Risk Factors for Heart Disease

The risk factors above are the biggest controllable risk factors of heart disease. But, there are some uncontrollable risk factors to consider and keep an eye on.

  • High Cholesterol - There are two forms of cholesterol - high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). High levels of LDL cholesterol - also known as "bad cholesterol" - can lead to the buildup of plaque in the arteries. People with high blood cholesterol levels are twice as likely to develop heart disease. High cholesterol can be managed through a healthy diet and medication, such as blood thinners like Xarelto or Pradaxa.
  • Type 2 Diabetes - Diabetes arises out of insulin resistance, during which the body is unable to properly regulate blood sugar levels. Type II diabetes most often results from a lack of physical activity and/or poor diet choices that cause weight gain.
  • Stress - Stress can cause a number of physiological responses, such as an increased heart rate and higher blood pressure. These responses can put additional strain on your heart. In addition, it can lead to unhealthy activities, such as overeating, smoking or excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Family History - Your family's health may have a deep impact on your risk of heart disease. If one of your immediate family members (sibling or parent) has heart disease, you may be more likely to develop heart disease.
  • Genetics - Conditions such as congenital heart defects can result in arrhythmia or another abnormality that weakens the heart. A weak heart must work harder to maintain a "normal" lifestyle. Over time, an overworked or deformed heart muscle is at risk for a plethora of different health issues.
  • Age and Gender - The older you are, the greater your risk of heart disease and sudden cardiac events. In people under age 55, men have a higher risk than women for developing heart disease. However, after going through menopause, a woman's risk increases to that of men their age.
  • Race - There is evidence that some minorities, including African and Hispanic Americans, have a higher incidence of heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Heart disease is the leading cause of death for people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States."

Live Healthily - And Get Yourself Checked Out!

Ultimately, heart disease prevention often includes a number of lifestyle changes, including:

  • Regular exercise
  • A diet low in saturated and trans fats
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Avoiding habits like smoking and alcohol use
  • Regular doctor's visits

If you are doing all of these things,  you'll greatly reduce the risk of having a heart attack or other event related to coronary heart disease.

Authored by Katy Moncivais, Ph.D.Medical Editor
Photo of Katy Moncivais, Ph.D.
Katy Moncivais holds a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. She’s an experienced Regenerative Medicine Consultant with a demonstrated history of working in the hospital & healthcare industry. Skilled in adult stem cells, medical devices, biomechanics, bacterial and mammalian cell culture, and regenerative medicine, she provides guidance on an array of topics affecting consumers. In her role at, Dr. Moncivais works alongside the writing and research staff to help deliver fact-based news stories to consumers. Her unique professional history alongside her rigorous educational background allows her to contribute to a variety of consumer-focused topics with a fresh perspective. In addition, Dr. Moncivais reviews portions of medically driven content to ensure scientific accuracy.
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