Heart disease has several risk factors. Nearly half of all Americans have at least one. However, people may be able to help reduce their risk of heart disease by making lifestyle changes.

The term “heart disease” refers to several conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for most people in the United States. In 2020, 1 in 5 people who died in the U.S. died from heart disease.

These conditions often do not cause any symptoms at first. People may not know they have heart disease until they experience symptoms of a serious event such as a heart attack. There is no cure for heart disease.

A person may have more than one risk factor for heart disease. Nearly half of Americans have at least one risk factor.

This article explores some common risk factors for heart disease and tips to prevent it.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a leading cause of heart disease.

This condition does not usually cause any symptoms. The only way for a person to know whether they have high blood pressure is to measure it. Blood pressure readings of 130/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or higher indicate hypertension. The typical range is less than 120/80 mm Hg.

As a person’s blood pressure gets higher, their heart’s workload increases. This causes the heart muscle to thicken and become stiffer. When this happens, the heart muscle functions abnormally, increasing a person’s risk of heart disease and other conditions.

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that the liver produces. Some foods also contain cholesterol. People need some cholesterol to stay healthy.

According to the American Heart Association, foods that contain dietary cholesterol are typically high in saturated and trans fats. These types of fat may cause a person’s liver to make more cholesterol than usual, which may lead to unhealthy cholesterol levels.

Two types of proteins carry cholesterol through the bloodstream:

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol: High levels of LDL cholesterol may cause plaque buildup in a person’s arteries. Doctors refer to this buildup as atherosclerosis. It increases a person’s risk of heart disease.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol: High levels of HDL cholesterol may help lower someone’s risk of heart disease. This is because HDL cholesterol absorbs excess cholesterol in the blood and carries it back to the liver, which removes it from the body.

Having high LDL cholesterol levels may double a person’s risk of heart disease. When excess LDL cholesterol builds up on the walls of a person’s arteries, it may limit blood flow to the heart and other organs.

Researchers believe the link between dietary cholesterol and heart disease may be more complex than scientists previously thought. As a result, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans no longer include a specific dietary cholesterol limit. However, the guidelines still recommend limiting consumption of dietary cholesterol.

People with high blood cholesterol do not typically have symptoms. The only way a person can find out whether they have high cholesterol is to undergo a test.

High blood sugar as a result of diabetes may damage a person’s blood vessels and the nerves that control their heart. Over time, this may cause someone to develop heart disease.

People with diabetes are twice as likely to have heart disease than people who do not have the condition. Many individuals living with diabetes also have high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels.

Almost 74% of adults in the U.S. have overweight or obesity.

People with overweight or obesity have excess levels of body fat, which has a link to high LDL cholesterol and low HDL cholesterol levels. These conditions may lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, and an overall increased heart disease risk.

Smoking tobacco raises a person’s risk for heart disease for several reasons:

  • Cigarette smoke damages the heart and blood vessels.
  • Nicotine increases blood pressure.
  • Carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke reduces the amount of oxygen a person’s blood carries.

Secondhand smoke exposure also increases heart disease risk, even for people who do not smoke.

Other heart disease risk factors include older age and family history of early heart disease.

Males and females are both at risk of developing heart disease. However, males are more likely to develop heart disease at a younger age, and females are more likely to develop heart disease after menopause or if they have experienced preeclampsia.

People cannot change some risk factors for heart disease, such as their age or family history. However, a person may be able to reduce their risk of heart disease by:

Many people have at least one risk factor for heart disease, which can lead to serious health events such as heart attacks. However, people may be able to reduce their risk of heart disease by making lifestyle changes.

A person should speak with a healthcare professional about their individual risk for heart disease and the best ways to manage any risk factors.