9 Heart Disease Risk Factors That You Can Control

When it comes to heart disease, there are some risk factors outside of your control. Fortunately, you can manage 90 percent of the risk factors that increase your risk for heart disease and the heart attacks it causes. Some changes are about lifestyle. Others are about getting medical care for the health conditions that can raise your risk.  Either way, there are many things you can do to avoid heart disease.

What You Can’t Control

If you have one or more of these uncontrollable risk factors, it’s even more important to tackle the ones you can control:

  • Older age (over 45 for men, over 55 for women)
  • Sex (men are at higher risk than women until women reach menopause)
  • Family history of a parent or sibling with premature coronary disease (men younger than 55 years, women younger than 65 years)

What You Can Control

Risk factors can add up.  The sooner you take action to reduce them, the better. But remember, it’s never too late to improve your personal and heart health.

In order of importance, here are nine controllable risk factors for heart attack and what you can do to help them:

  1. Cholesterol levels: Get yours under control with diet, exercise, and medication if needed.  Every 1 percent reduction in LDL (“bad” cholesterol) reduces risk 1 percent. Every 1 percent increase in HDL (“good” cholesterol) reduces risk 2-4 percent.  Check with your doctor to see if you should have a cholesterol blood test.
  2. Smoking: Stop. Smoking 1-5 cigarettes a day increases the risk of heart attack by 38 percent, 40 cigarettes a day by a whopping 900 percent. If you stop smoking, the risk decreases over time, and after three to five years your risk is the same as a nonsmoker’s. Here’s a place to help you stop smoking.
  3. Stress: Identify and reduce sources of stress in your life, including depression, anger, and anxiety. This is a useful link for natural ways to balance stress levels.
  4. Diabetes: Find out if you have it and take action. Twenty-nine million people in the U.S. have diabetes, and many don’t know it. Risk of heart disease increases two to four times when you have diabetes.  New screening recommendations are being developed for when to begin testing, but if you have any signs of diabetes, talk to your doctor.
  5. High blood pressure: If you have it, treat it. One in three adults in the U.S. has hypertension, and only one-third is adequately controlling it. Everyone over age 18 should be screened for high blood pressure, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.
  6. Obesity: Check your waist measurement and get your weight under control with diet and exercise. Abdominal obesity is a risk factor for heart attack. Waist measurement is a better predictor of risk than overall weight.  Fat around the belly can also lead to metabolic syndrome – a combination of hypertension, high blood sugar, and cholesterol problems that can double your risk of heart disease.  If your waist measurement is in the chart below, check with your doctor about your risk.
    Measure your waistline risk
    Risk Men Women
    Intermediate 37.1–39.9 inches 31.6–34.9 inches
    High 40 inches and above 35 inches and above
  7. Diet: Eat more fruits and vegetables. Eating less than the recommended four to five servings a day increases your risk. Get tips for eating more fruits and vegetables.
  8. Exercise: Do it moderately (such as brisk walking) or strenuously (such as jogging), because lack of exercise is a risk factor.
  9. Alcohol intake: It appears that drinking three drinks a week or so is better than not drinking anything at all. It’s important to keep in mind that drinking too much can increase the risk of heart disease. Alcohol intake is something you should discuss with your doctor.

The nine risk factors listed in this article are from the landmark study INTER-HEART: A global study of risk factors for acute myocardial infarction, published in The Lancet, 2004.

Meet the Author

Robert Panther, MD is a board-certified Cardiologist at Aurora Wilkinson Medical Clinic in Summit, WI.

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The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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