Skip to main content

Please select your language.

Selecciona tu idioma.

Health library

Back to health library

Heart disease: Controlling your risk

You can protect yourself from heart attack and stroke.

Two steps can help you avoid heart disease, our nation's leading killer.

Step 1: Learn your risk factors

The more risk factors you have, the greater your risk for heart disease.

Major risk factors for heart disease include:

Heredity. If one or both of your parents have had heart disease, you are more likely to develop it too. Heart disease rates are also higher among African Americans, Mexican Americans, American Indians, Native Hawaiians and some Asian Americans.

Gender. More men than women have heart attacks, and they have them at an earlier age.

Age. Most people who die of heart disease are older than 65. Men's risk starts climbing after age 45. Women's risk starts climbing after age 55.

Smoking. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), people who smoke greatly increase their risk of heart disease.

Smoking promotes deposits of cholesterol in the arteries and may damage artery walls. It also reduces the level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) in your blood. HDL is the good cholesterol, which researchers believe clears the bad low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol from blood vessels.

High blood pressure. According to the AHA, nearly half of American adults have high blood pressure. But many don't even realize they have it.

High blood pressure is called a silent killer because it usually has no specific symptoms or early warning signs.

Also known as hypertension, this condition forces the heart to work harder than normal to pump blood. This causes the heart to enlarge and weaken over time.

Hypertension also increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, kidney failure and congestive heart failure, according to the AHA.

A blood pressure reading of 130 or greater systolic (heart-pumping) pressure or 80 or greater diastolic (heart-resting) pressure for extended periods indicates hypertension. Ideal blood pressure is less than 120 systolic and less than 80 diastolic.

People whose blood pressure is between 120 and 129 systolic and under 80 diastolic have what's called elevated blood pressure. These people should talk with their doctors about making lifestyle changes to help prevent hypertension.

High blood cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol can increase your risk for heart disease. Cholesterol can damage and thicken the walls of the arteries, making it more difficult for blood to reach the heart.

Healthy blood cholesterol levels vary by age and sex. And your cholesterol levels should be considered in context with your other risk factors.

Physical inactivity. Being inactive increases your risk for heart disease and contributes to other heart disease risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and low blood levels of HDL cholesterol.

Extra body weight. Being overweight or obese puts extra strain on the heart. Even if you have no other risk factors for heart disease, extra body fat increases your risk.

Diabetes. Those with type 2 diabetes are twice as likely to die of stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you have diabetes, good disease management can reduce damage to your heart and arteries.

Step 2: Reduce your risk

Once you know your risk factors for heart disease, take steps to eliminate them:

Stop smoking. Your risk for heart disease begins to decrease as soon as you quit smoking.

One year after quitting, an ex-smoker's excess risk of developing heart disease is reduced by half, according to the AHA.

Quitting also dramatically reduces the risk of a heart attack, and it reduces the risk of a second heart attack in people who already had one.

Your doctor can help you quit.

Fight high blood pressure. To lower your blood pressure, reduce the amount of salt (sodium) in your diet, avoid alcohol, lose weight if you're overweight and increase your physical activity level.

Your doctor may also prescribe medication to help control your blood pressure.

Control your cholesterol. Work with your doctor to get them to a healthy level. Lifestyle changes and medicines can usually help.

Watch your weight. Balance the calories you eat with your level of physical activity.

Get moving. The health benefits of regular exercise include:

  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Greater success at cutting down on or stopping smoking.
  • Weight loss.
  • A lower risk of diabetes.  
  • Higher HDL cholesterol, which has been linked to a decreased risk of heart disease.

The AHA recommends at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on most days of the week to promote heart fitness.

Examples of aerobic exercise include moderate-to-brisk walking; jogging; running; swimming; and sports such as tennis, racquetball, soccer and basketball.

Even modest levels of low-intensity physical activity, such as gardening, walking and brisk housework, can help if you do them regularly over a long period of time.

See your doctor before you begin an exercise program if you have a heart condition, have had a stroke or have another medical condition that might require special attention. Also talk to your doctor if you are middle-aged, haven't been physically active and plan a vigorous exercise program.

Reviewed 8/15/2023

Related stories