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Heart disease - risk factors

Alternate Names

Heart disease - prevention

What Is a Risk Factor?

A risk factor is something about you that increases your chance of getting a disease or having a certain health condition. Some risk factors for heart disease you cannot change, but some you can. Changing the risk factors that you have control over will help you live a longer, healthier life.

Risk Factors You Cannot Change

Some of the things about you that increase your risk of getting heart disease that you CANNOT change are:

  • Your age. Risk of heart disease increases with age.
  • Your gender. Men have a higher risk of getting heart disease than women who are still menstruating. After menopause, the risk for women gets closer to the risk for men.
  • Your genes or race. If your parents had heart disease, you are at higher risk. African-Americans, Mexican Americans, American Indians, Hawaiians, and some Asian Americans also have a higher risk for heart problems.

Risk Factors You Can Change

Some of the risks for heart disease that you CAN change are:

  • Not smoking. If you do smoke, quit.
  • Controlling your cholesterol through diet, exercise, and medicines .
  • Controlling high blood pressure through diet, exercise, and medicines, if needed.
  • Controlling diabetes through diet, exercise, and medicines, if needed.
  • Exercising at least 30 minutes a day.
  • Keeping to a healthy weight by eating healthy foods, eating less, and joining a weight loss program, if you need to lose weight.
  • Learning healthy ways to cope with stress through special classes or programs, or things like meditation or yoga.
  • Limiting how much alcohol you drink to 1 drink a day for women and 2 a day for men.
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Good nutrition is important to your heart health and will help control some of your risk factors.

  • Choose a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Choose lean proteins, such as chicken, fish, beans and legumes.
  • Choose low-fat dairy products, such as 1% milk and other low-fat items.
  • Avoid sodium (salt) and fats found in fried foods, processed foods, and baked goods.
  • Eat fewer animal products that contain cheese, cream, or eggs.
  • Read labels, and stay away from "saturated fat" and anything that contains "partially-hydrogenated" or "hydrogenated" fats. These products are usually loaded with unhealthy fats.

Follow these guidelines and the advice of your doctor to lower your chances of developing heart disease.

References

Gaziano JM, Ridker PM, Libby P. Primary and secondary prevention of coronary heart disease. In: Bonow RO, Mann DL, Zipes DP, Libby P, eds. Braunwald's HeartDisease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders; 2011:chap 49.

Hansson GK, Hamsten A. Atherosclerosis, thrombosis, and vascular biology. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 70. 

Updated: 9/6/2012

David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.


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