• Heart Disease Risk Factors You Can Control


    While there are risk factors you’re born with or simply cannot change, there are some that you have control over and some that you can influence. Here’s an overview of the risk factors you may be able to impact by following some guidelines for heart-healthy living:

    Smoking and Other Tobacco Products

    When you smoke, you expose your heart, lungs and blood vessels to nicotine, carbon monoxide and other harmful substances contained in smoke. This causes blood vessels to constrict, blood pressure to go up and cholesterol levels to climb. In addition, smoking deprives the body’s tissues of oxygen, damages the inner lining of blood vessels, allows plaques to grow inside your arteries, and makes it more likely that dangerous blood clots will form.

    High Cholesterol Levels

    High levels of LDL cholesterol—the so-called bad cholesterol—can increase the build-up of plaque in the arteries of the heart. It’s also unhealthy to have low levels of HDL, or “good” cholesterol. The ideal blood cholesterol level for you depends on your age, gender, and history of heart disease, but for most people with coronary artery disease, the target LDL cholesterol level is 100 mg/dL or below, and the target HDL cholesterol level is above 40 mg/dL for men, and above 50 mg/dL for women. There is more information on controlling your cholesterol here.

    High Blood Pressure

    If your blood pressure is above 140/90 mmHg for long periods of time, it can damage the blood vessels. This not only makes it more likely that cholesterol plaques will form, it also causes the artery walls to become thicker, stiffer and less able to expand and contract with changes in activity and other physical demands. Learn more about controlling your blood pressure here.


    High blood sugar levels can damage the blood vessels throughout the body, making it more likely that atherosclerotic plaques will develop. In fact, about one out of three people with diabetes also has coronary artery disease. Poorly controlled diabetes also increases the risk of developing peripheral artery disease (PAD), eye disease and kidney problems. Learning more about diabetes is a wise investment in your cardiovascular health.

    Being Overweight or Obese

    Carrying around too much body weight not only puts a strain on your heart, it also makes it more difficult to control high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and diabetes. Men and women who are overweight are about 20 percent more likely to develop cardiovascular disease. Being obese—more than 20 percent above ideal body weight—is even more dangerous. Obesity increases the risk of cardiovascular disease by 46 percent in men and 64 percent in women.

    Recent research also suggests that your waist size can be a predictor of cardiovascular risk, too. Women should try to keep their waist size under 35 inches and men should aim for a waist of less than 40 inches.

    SecondsCount features helpful information on eating a heart-healthy diet and being physically active, two good strategies for maintaining or losing weight, in the Healthy Living Center.

    Physical Inactivity

    A lack of exercise weakens your muscles and makes it harder to control several other heart disease risk factors, including blood pressure, cholesterol levels, diabetes, obesity, and stress. Check out SecondsCount’s practical tools, tips and support to show you how to be less sedentary and more physically active.

    Metabolic Syndrome

    The term metabolic syndrome is used to describe a cluster of traits that, together, increase the risk for developing heart disease. These traits include high blood sugar, high blood pressure, low levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, high blood levels of fats known as triglycerides and excess body weight, particularly in the belly area.


    High levels of stress in your life, or a tendency to often feel angry, have also been linked to an increased risk for heart disease.

    High Levels of C-Reactive Protein

    CRP is produced by the body in response to infection or inflammation. Your doctor may use a special high-sensitivity CRP test to look for signs that you have inflammation in the arteries of your heart. If your CRP levels are high, your risk of having a heart attack is increased. You can learn more about the CPR test here.

    Now What?

    After you learn about your own cardiovascular risk factors, what now? The next step is to work with a team of healthcare providers to develop a strategy for managing the risk factors you have and keeping an eye on the ones you may be at risk for. Click here to learn about measuring and managing heart disease risk.