Want to understand your risks for heart attack? The American Heart Association outlines three types of risk factors – major, modifiable, and contributing – to help you manage your own heart health.
- Major risk factors significantly increase the risk of heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) disease.
- Modifiable risk factors are major risk factors that can be modified, treated or controlled through medications or lifestyle change.
- Contributing risk factors are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, but their significance and prevalence haven’t yet been determined.
The more risk factors you have, and the greater the degree of each risk factor, the higher your chance of developing coronary heart disease –the buildup of plaque in the heart’s arteries that could lead to heart attack.
The American Heart Association recommends focusing on heart disease prevention early in life. To start, assess your risk factors and work to keep them low. The sooner you identify and manage your risk factors, the better your chances of leading a heart-healthy life.
Major risk factors that can’t be changed
Since you can’t do anything about these risk factors, it’s even more important that you manage your risk factors that can be changed.
- Increasing Age: Most people who die of coronary heart disease are 65 or older. Women are at greater risk of dying from heart attack.
- Male gender: Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women, and have attacks earlier in life.
- Heredity (including race): Children of parents with heart disease are more likely to develop heart disease themselves. African-Americans have more severe high blood pressure than Caucasians, and a higher risk of heart disease. Heart disease risk 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.
Major risk factors you can modify, treat or control
- Tobacco smoke: Smokers are at much higher risk of heart attack, or to develop coronary heart disease. Exposure to other people’s smoke increases the risk of heart disease even for nonsmokers.
- High cholesterol: As your blood cholesterol rises, so does your risk of coronary heart disease. When other risk factors (such as high blood pressure and tobacco smoke) are also present, this risk increases even more.
- High blood pressure: This increases the heart’s workload, making the heart muscle thicker and stiffer – causing the heart to function abnormally. It also increases your risk of stroke, heart attack, kidney failure and congestive heart failure.
- Physical inactivity: Regular, moderate to vigorous physical activity helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Physical activity can help control blood cholesterol, diabetes and obesity. It can also help to lower blood pressure in some people.
- Obesity and being overweight: Excess body fat – especially at the waist – increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, even for people with no other risk factors. A sustained weight loss of 3 to 5 percent of your body weight may lead to significant reductions in some risk factors. Greater sustained weight losses can improve blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose.
- Diabetes: Even when glucose levels are under control, diabetes increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. The risks are even greater if blood sugar is not well-controlled. At least 68 percent of people with diabetes over 65 years of age die of some form of heart disease. Among that same group, 16 percent die of stroke. If you have diabetes, be sure to work with your doctor to manage it, and control any other risk factors that you can. To help manage blood sugar, people with diabetes who are obese or overweight should make lifestyle changes, such as eating better or getting regular physical activity.
Other factors that contribute to heart disease risk
- Stress: People under stress may overeat, start smoking or smoke more than they otherwise would. Practice stress management.
- Alcohol: Drinking too much can raise blood pressure, and increase your risk for cardiomyopathy, stroke, cancer and other diseases. It can also contribute to high triglycerides, and produce irregular heartbeats. If you drink, limit your alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one drink per day for women.
- Nutrition: A healthy diet can affect other controllable risk factors such as cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes and being overweight. Choose a diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits and whole grains. A heart-healthy diet also includes low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes, nuts and nontropical vegetable oils. Be sure to limit your intake of sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages and red meats.
A heart attack can occur at any age. You’re never too young to start heart-healthy living. If you’re over 40, or if you have multiple risk factors, work closely with your health care provider to address your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Learn more from the American Heart Association.