Risk Factors You Can Change

Extensive clinical and statistical studies have identified several factors that increase the risk of coronary heart disease and heart attack. Major risk factors are those that research has shown significantly increase the risk of heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) disease. Other factors are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, but their significance and prevalence haven't yet been precisely determined. They're called contributing risk factors

Some risk factors can be modified, treated or controlled, and some can't. The more risk factors you have, the greater your chance of developing coronary heart disease. Also, the greater the level of each risk factor, the greater your risk. For example, everyone with total cholesterol greater than 240 mg/dL is considered high-risk, but a person with a total cholesterol of 300 mg/dL has a greater risk than someone with a total cholesterol of 245 mg/dL.

Major risk factors you can modify, treat or control by changing your lifestyle or taking medicine

Tobacco smoke: Smokers' risk of developing coronary heart disease is 2–4 times that of nonsmokers. Cigarette smoking is a powerful independent risk factor for sudden cardiac death in patients with coronary heart disease; smokers have about twice the risk of nonsmokers. Cigarette smoking also acts with other risk factors to greatly increase the risk for coronary heart disease. People who smoke cigars or pipes seem to have a higher risk of death from coronary heart disease (and possibly stroke) but their risk isn't as great as cigarette smokers'. Exposure to other people's smoke increases the risk of heart disease even for nonsmokers.

Learn about smoking and cardiovascular disease

Visit our Quitting Smoking area for plans, tips and tools to help you quit

High blood cholesterol: As blood cholesterol rises, so does risk of coronary heart disease. When other risk factors (such as high blood pressure and tobacco smoke) are present, this risk increases even more. A person's cholesterol level is also affected by age, sex, heredity and diet. Here’s the lowdown on where those numbers need to be:

Total Cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL
LDL (bad) Cholesterol:

  • If you're at low risk for heart disease: Less than 160 mg/dL
  • If you're at intermediate risk for heart disease: Less than 130 mg/dL
  • If you're at high risk for heart disease (including those with existing heart disease or diabetes): Less than 100mg/dL

HDL (good) Cholesterol: 40 mg/dL or higher for men and 50 mg/dL or higher for women
Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL

Visit our Cholesterol Web site

Get your free personalized cholesterol treatment options report from the Heart Profilers

High blood pressure: High blood pressure increases the heart's workload, causing the heart to thicken and become stiffer. This stiffening of the heart muscle is not normal, and causes the heart not to work properly.  It also increases your risk of stroke, heart attack, kidney failure and congestive heart failure. When high blood pressure exists with obesity, smoking, high blood cholesterol levels or diabetes, the risk of heart attack or stroke increases several times.

Visit our High Blood Pressure Web site

Take our Blood Pressure Risk Assessment

Get your free personalized high blood pressure treatment options report from the Heart Profilers

Physical inactivity: An inactive lifestyle is a risk factor for coronary heart disease. Regular, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity helps prevent heart and blood vessel disease. The more vigorous the activity, the greater your benefits. However, even moderate-intensity activities help if done regularly and long term. Physical activity can help control blood cholesterol, diabetes and obesity, as well as help lower blood pressure in some people.

Visit our Physical Activity and Fitness Web site

Start! a walking program

Obesity and overweight: People who have excess body fat — especially if a lot of it is at the waist — are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke even if they have no other risk factors. Excess weight increases the heart's work. It also raises blood pressure and blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and lowers HDL ("good") cholesterol levels. It can also make diabetes more likely to develop. Many obese and overweight people may have difficulty losing weight. But by losing even as few as 10 pounds, you can lower your heart disease risk.

Visit our Weight Management Web site

Diabetes mellitus : Diabetes seriously increases your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Even when glucose levels are under control, diabetes increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, but the risks are even greater if blood sugar is not well controlled. At least 65% of people with diabetes die of some form of heart or blood vessel disease. If you have diabetes, it's extremely important to work with your healthcare provider to manage it and control any other risk factors you can. Persons who are obese or overweight should lose weight to keep blood sugar in control.   

Visit our Heart of Diabetes Web site

What other factors contribute to heart disease risk?

Stress: Individual response to stress may be a contributing factor. Some scientists have noted a relationship between coronary heart disease risk and stress in a person's life, their health behaviors and socioeconomic status. These factors may affect established risk factors. For example, people under stress may overeat, start smoking or smoke more than they otherwise would.

Get stress management tips and tools

Alcohol: Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure, cause heart failure and lead to stroke. It can contribute to high triglycerides, cancer and other diseases, and produce irregular heartbeats. It contributes to obesity, alcoholism, suicide and accidents. The risk of heart disease in people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol (an average of one drink for women or two drinks for men per day) is lower than in nondrinkers. One drink is defined as 1-1/2 fluid ounces (fl oz) of 80-proof spirits (such as bourbon, Scotch, vodka, gin, etc.), 1 fl oz of 100-proof spirits, 4 fl oz of wine or 12 fl oz of beer. It's not recommended that nondrinkers start using alcohol or that drinkers increase the amount they drink.

Read our recommendation on alcohol, wine and cardiovascular disease

Diet and Nutrition:  A healthy diet is one of the best weapons you have to fight cardiovascular disease. The food you eat (and the amount) can affect other controllable risk factors: cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes and overweight. Choose nutrient-rich foods — which have vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients but are lower in calories — over nutrient-poor foods. A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole-grain and high-fiber foods, fish, lean protein and fat-free or low-fat dairy products is the key. And to maintain a healthy weight, coordinate your diet with your physical activity level so you're using up as many calories as you take in.

Visit our Diet and Nutrition Web site

Select American Heart Association cookbooks

Learn about major risk factors that can't be changed


This content is reviewed regularly. Last updated 07/13/09.

Print   Email

Links on This Site
Order brochures

Download and print information sheets

Links to Other Sites
Get heart health news, recipes, tips and tools with our monthly e-newsletters

Downloadable Documents
Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics (At-a-Glance Version)

Know the Facts, Get the Stats


Use our Risk Calculator to assess your risk of heart disease or stroke, and learn how you can improve your odds.

heart attack

Heart360 logo
What are your heart health goals? Track your progress at managing blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, weight, physical activity and medications with Heart360, our online cardiovascular wellness center.

Women’s cholesterol levels tend to rise as they age. Choose to learn about cholesterol and how to manage it.

Privacy Policy | Copyright | Ethics Policy | Conflict of Interest Policy | Linking Policy | Diversity
© 2010 American Heart Association, Inc. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited.