Heart Attack Risk Factors

A heart attack can happen to anyone, though taking the time to learn the risk factors can help you eliminate or reduce them.

Helpful Highlights

  • 80% of heart disease (the precursor to heart attack) is preventable, though remains the #1 cause of death in the U.S.

  • Know the risk factors for heart attack, a couple may surprise you.

  • The biggest risk factors for heart attack are high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, and smoking. Nearly half of all Americans have one of these.

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What can I do?

Encourage your loved one to talk to their primary care provider about what they should be doing, and more importantly how and when to do it, and listen to the explanations and recommendations yourself. This will help you understand the risk factors and how you can help your loved one make changes. Then support them in the changes they make, no matter how small or slow. Also check with your loved one's health plan for benefits that support cardiovascular risk reduction, such as testing and lifestyle programs.

Ways to manage risk factors

  • Look at which risk factors apply, then take steps to eliminate or reduce them.

  • Learn about high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, in addition to heart disease. There is a good reason these are referred to as "silent killers."

  • Reduce modifiable (controllable) risk factors by making lifestyle changes. Talk with your loved one's primary healthcare provider to find out how.

  • Risk factors that are not modifiable can also be managed with lifestyle changes and sometimes medications, as with a family history of high cholesterol.

What are the biggest risk factors for heart attack?

About half of all Americans have at least one of the three key risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, and smoking.

Inherited (genetic) factors: Groups most at risk

Inherited, genetic, or family history (all the same meaning) risk factors are non-modifiable, meaning preventing them is out of our control. However, managing them is not.

  • Inherited high blood pressure (hypertension).

  • Inherited low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol ("good" cholesterol).

  • Inherited high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.

    • LDL sticks to the walls of arteries and produces plaque, a hard substance that blocks blood flow.

  • Inherited high levels of triglycerides (circulating fats).

  • A family history of heart disease, especially if the heart disease started before age 55.

  • Type 1 diabetes (childhood, lifelong diabetes).

  • Men are at a higher risk of a heart attack after age 45, and women are at a higher risk of a heart attack after age 55.

  • Post-menopausal women.

    • After menopause, women are as equally at risk for heart attack as men.

Acquired risk factors: Groups most at risk

Acquired risk factors are modifiable, meaning we can do things to prevent them.

  • High blood pressure is caused by lifestyle choices.

  • Low levels of HDL cholesterol, high levels of LDL cholesterol, or high levels of triglycerides because of lifestyle choices.

  • Smoking or other tobacco use.

  • High alcohol consumption.

  • Anxiety or stress.

  • Sedentary lifestyle (physical inactivity).

  • Overweight by 30% or more.

  • Type 2 diabetes.

    • High levels of blood sugar damage blood vessels and lead to coronary artery disease, among other problems.

  • Eating a lot of processed and fried foods (high sodium and a lot of fat), as well as other foods that contain high saturated and trans saturated fats (some meats and cheeses, for example).

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