Heart Disease Risk Factors

Someone dies in the U.S. every 37 seconds from heart disease, according to the CDC. The term “heart disease” refers to many different diseases and health conditions that affect the heart, including cardiovascular disease, arrhythmias, coronary artery disease, and heart failure. Knowing heart disease risk factors can help you understand your own risk, lower your risk for the disease, and know when to talk to a doctor about heart disease.

Nearly half of all U.S. adults have at least 1 out of 3 key risk factors for heart disease: smoking, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Click To Tweet

The big three: major risks for heart disease

Smoking tobacco is a major risk factor for heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke. Tobacco use damages the heart and blood vessels, raises blood pressure, and limits the amount of oxygen your blood carries. Secondhand smoke increases the risk for heart disease for nonsmokers, too.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, significantly increases a person’s risk for heart disease. It has no symptoms; the only way to know if you have hypertension is to measure your blood pressure. Healthy diet and exercise can help you maintain healthy blood pressure levels.

Unhealthy cholesterol levels, whether it’s too much LDL, not enough HDL, or a high total cholesterol, directly increases your risk for heart disease. As with blood pressure, the only way to know if you have unhealthy cholesterol levels is by getting your cholesterol checked.

Risk factors that you can’t control

Having a family history of heart disease increases your personal risk for the disease. You may also be at an increased risk for heart disease if your family has a history of health issues such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes; you are more likely to develop heart disease if you have these health problems.

Men have a slightly higher risk for developing heart disease than women. However, heart disease is the most common cause of death for both men and women in the United States.

Age is another factor that increases your risk for heart problems. Heart disease can occur at any age, but your risk for the disease increases as you get older.

Risk factors you can control

The big three

You can influence the three biggest risk factors for heart diseases: smoking, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Not smoking, maintaining a normal weight, eating a healthy diet, and regular physical activity significantly lower your personal risk for developing heart disease.

Sedentary living

A lack of physical activity increases a person’s risk for heart disease as well as other health problems that increase the risk for heart disease: obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. Exercise, stay physically active, and avoid sedentary living to lower your risk for heart disease.


Avoid an unhealthy diet that is high in salt, saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol. Add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and minimally processed foods to your plate.


Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure and triglyceride levels, and increases the risk for obesity and stroke. If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation. Don’t start drinking alcohol for health benefits if you do not already drink.


Stress can lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, alcohol use, and overeating, that may contribute to heart disease.


People who are obese or overweight are more likely to develop heart disease than people at a healthy weight. Overweight and obese adults tend to have high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and other health issues that contribute to heart disease.


People with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease than people without the disease. The risk is even higher when blood glucose levels are not under control.

Talk to your doctor

Your doctor can help you learn your risk for the disease and monitor your risk factors. Understanding your personal risk for heart disease allows you to take steps to protect yourself from heart disease.