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What Are the Risk Factors for Heart Disease?

Risk factors are conditions or habits that make a person more likely to develop a disease.  They can also increase the chances that an existing disease will get worse.  Important risk factors for heart disease that you can do something about are:

  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Being physically inactive
  • Having a family history of early heart disease
  • Age (55 or older for women)

Some risk factors, such as age and family history of early heart disease, can't be changed.  For women, age becomes a risk factor at 55.  After menopause, women are more apt to get heart disease, in part because their body's production of estrogen drops.  Women who have gone through early menopause, either naturally or because they have had a hysterectomy, are twice as likely to develop heart disease as women of the same age who have not yet gone through menopause.  Another reason for the increasing risk is that middle age is a time when women tend to develop risk factors for heart disease.  Family history of early heart disease is another risk factor that can't be changed.  If your father or brother had a heart attack before age 55, or if your mother or sister had one before age 65, you are more likely to get heart disease yourself.

While certain risk factors cannot be changed, it is important to realize that you do have control over many others.  Regardless of your age, background, or health status, you can lower your risk of heart disease—and it doesn't have to be complicated.  Protecting your heart can be as simple as taking a brisk walk, whipping up a good vegetable soup, or getting the support you need to maintain a healthy weight.

Some women believe that doing just one healthy thing will take care of all of their heart disease risk.  For example, they may think that if they walk or swim regularly, they can still smoke and stay fairly healthy. Wrong!  To protect your heart, it is vital to make changes that address each risk factor you have.  You can make the changes gradually, one at a time.  But making them is very important.  Other women may wonder:  If I have just one risk factor for heart disease—say, I'm overweight or I have high blood cholesterol—aren't I more or less "safe"?  Absolutely not.   Each risk factor greatly increases a woman's chance of developing heart disease.  But having more than one risk factor is especially serious, because risk factors tend to "gang up" and worsen each other's effects.  So, the message is clear:  Every woman needs to take her heart disease risk seriously—and take action now to reduce that risk.

Next:  How do I find out if I am at risk for heart disease?