Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on August 24, 2020

There are several risk factors for heart disease. Some you can control, others you can’t.

Ones that can’t be controlled include:

  • Gender (males are at greater risk)
  • Age (the older you get, the higher your risk)
  • A family history of heart disease
  • Being post-menopausal

Still, making some changes in your lifestyle can reduce your chance of having heart disease. Controllable risk factors include:

What Can I Do to Lower My Chance of Having Heart Disease?

Making lifestyle changes is a proven method. While there are no guarantees that a heart-healthy lifestyle will keep heart disease away, it will certainly improve your health in other ways. Some risk factors are related to others. So, making changes in one area can help in others.

Here are some changes you can make:

Quit smoking. Smokers have more than twice the chance of having a heart attack as nonsmokers. If you smoke, quit. Nonsmokers who are exposed to constant smoke (like those who live with a spouse who smokes) also have increased risk. Eliminating exposure to smoke is important.


Improve your cholesterol. Your chance of having heart disease increases as your total amount of cholesterol increases. Your total goal should be less than 200 mg/dl. Your HDL, the good cholesterol, should be higher than 40 mg/dl if you’re a man and higher than 50 mg/dl if you’re a woman (and the higher the better). Your LDL, the bad cholesterol, should be less than 130 mg/dl.

It’s important to note that cholesterol values mean different things to different people. The difference depends on your own odds of having heart disease. Your doctor may use a calculator to help figure out your risk.

A diet low in cholesterol, saturated and trans fat, and simple sugars will help lower cholesterol levels and reduce your chance of having heart disease. Regular exercise will also help lower "bad" cholesterol and raise "good" cholesterol. Medications are often needed to reach cholesterol goals.


Control your blood pressure. About 60 million people in the U.S. have hypertension. That makes it the most common heart disease risk factor. Nearly 1 in 3 adults has systolic blood pressure (the upper number) over 140, and diastolic blood pressure (the lower number) over 90, which is the definition of hypertension. Like cholesterol, blood pressure treatment should be individualized, taking into account your own chances of having heart disease.

You can keep a handle on blood pressure through diet, exercise, weight management, and if needed, medications.

Manage your diabetes. If not controlled, it can contribute to significant heart damage, including heart attacks and death. Control diabetes through a healthy diet, exercise, keeping a healthy weight, and medications prescribed by your doctor.

Get active. People who don't exercise have higher rates of death and heart disease, compared with those who perform even mild to moderate amounts of physical activity. Even leisure activities like gardening or walking can lower your chance of having heart disease.


Most people should exercise 30 minutes a day, at moderate intensity, on most days. More vigorous activities are associated with more benefits. Exercise should be aerobic, involving the large muscle groups.

Aerobic activities include:

If walking is your exercise of choice, use the pedometer goal of 10,000 steps a day. Consult your doctor before starting any exercise program.

Eat right. Follow a heart-healthy diet low in salt, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and refined sugars. Try to have more foods rich in vitamins and nutrients, especially antioxidants. Get a healthy helping of plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, nuts, and whole grains, too.

Be your best weight. Extra pounds put significant strain on your heart and worsen several other heart disease risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol and triglycerides. Research shows that obesity itself increases your odds of having heart disease. A good diet and exercise plan can help you lose weight and lower your risk.

Manage stress.Stress and anger may be associated with a higher risk of heart attacks and strokes. Use management techniques to lower your chance. Use relaxation techniques. Manage your time. Set realistic goals. You might want to experiment with some new things, like guided imagery, massage, tai chi, or yoga.

WebMD Medical Reference



American Heart Association: "Understand Your Risk of Heart Attack."

WebMD Feature: "How Low Must Your Cholesterol Go?"

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