Risk Factors of a Heart Attack

The first step in preventing a cardiac event, like a heart attack, is to understand your risk. There are risk factors for a heart attack you can control, and some you cannot. Understand your risks, and talk to your doctor about making changes to limit the risk.

Need a primary care physician or cardiologist? Search Find a Doc.

Major Risk Factors You can Modify, Treat, or Control by Changing Your Lifestyle, or Taking Medicine

Tobacco smoke
Smokers' risk of developing coronary heart disease is 2-4 times that of nonsmokers. People who smoke a pack of cigarettes a day have more than twice the risk of heart attack than people who've never smoked. Cigarette smoking is a powerful independent risk factor for sudden cardiac death in patients with coronary heart disease. Cigarette smoking also acts with other risk factors to greatly increase the risk for coronary heart disease. People who smoke cigars or pipes seem to have a higher risk of death from coronary heart disease (and possibly stroke) but their risk isn't as great as cigarette smokers'. Exposure to other people's smoke increases the risk of heart disease even for nonsmokers.

Upstate can help you quit.

High blood cholesterol
As blood cholesterol rises, so does risk of coronary heart disease. When other risk factors (such as high blood pressure and tobacco smoke) are present, this risk increases even more. A person's cholesterol level is also affected by age, sex, heredity and diet. Here's the lowdown on where those numbers need to be:

  • Total Cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL
  • LDL (bad) Cholesterol:
    • If you're at low risk for heart disease: Less than 160 mg/dL
    • If you're at intermediate risk for heart disease: Less than 130 mg/dL
    • If you're at high risk for heart disease (including those with existing heart disease or diabetes): Less than 100mg/dL
  • HDL (good) Cholesterol: 40 mg/dL or higher for men and 50 mg/dL or higher for women
  • Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL

High blood pressure
High blood pressure increases the heart's workload, causing the heart muscle to thicken and become stiffer. This stiffening of the heart muscle is not normal, and causes the heart not to work properly. It also increases your risk of stroke, heart attack, kidney failure and congestive heart failure. When high blood pressure exists with obesity, smoking, high blood cholesterol levels or diabetes, the risk of heart attack or stroke increases several times.

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

Obesity and overweight
People who have excess body fat — especially if a lot 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 increases the heart's work because often the blood pressure is higher. It also raises blood pressure and blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and lowers HDL ("good") cholesterol levels. It can also make diabetes more likely to develop. Many obese and overweight people may have difficulty losing weight. But by losing even 10% from your current weight, you can lower your heart disease risk.

Diabetes mellitus
Diabetes seriously increases your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Even when glucose levels are under control, diabetes increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, but the risks are even greater if blood sugar is not well controlled. At least 65% of people with diabetes die of some form of heart or blood vessel disease. If you have diabetes, it's extremely important to work with your healthcare provider to manage it and control any other risk factors you can. Persons who are obese or overweight should lose weight to keep blood sugar in control.

Learn more about the Joslin Diabetes Center

Major Risk Factors That Can't Be Changed

The risk factors on this list are ones you're born with and cannot be changed. The more of these risk factors you have, the greater your chance of developing coronary heart disease. Since you can't do anything about these risk factors, it's even more important for you to manage the risk factors that can be changed.

Increasing Age
About 82 percent of people who die of coronary 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 Sex (Gender)
Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women do, and they have attacks earlier in life. Even after menopause, when women's death rate from heart disease increases, it's 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 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. Most people with a strong family history of heart disease have one or more other 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 have.

Courtesy of the American Heart and Stroke Association