Heart Disease Risk Factors You Can Control

Lisa Nelson, RD, LN Health Pro
  • There are risk factors for heart disease that you have no control over, such as:


    Male sex
    Family History


    You cannot do anything about the above risks, so there is no need to waste time dwelling on them. If you want to take action and reduce your risk of developing heart disease there are several controllable risk factors.


    These include:


    Tobacco use


    If you smoke your risk of developing heart disease is 2-4 times higher than a nonsmoker. You've doubled your risk of having a heart attack if you smoke a pack of cigarettes per day. This applies to you if you smoke cigars or pipes even though cigarette smokers are in the highest risk category. Nonsmokers also must be aware of the dangers and increased risk if you are exposed to second hand smoke.

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    High cholesterol levels


    This applies to you if you have an elevated total cholesterol, high LDL cholesterol, high triglycerides, and/or low HDL cholesterol. (There are exceptions to the rule. If you lead a healthy, active lifestyle and your levels are elevated work with your physician to investigate further with a comprehensive lipid panel to determine if you are at increased risk for heart disease or not.)

    Here are the recommendations of the American Heart Association:

    Total cholesterol less than 200 mg/dl
    HDL cholesterol at least > 40 mg/dl, ideally > 60 mg/dl
    LDL cholesterol at least less than 130 mg/dl, ideally less than 100 mg/dl
    Triglycerides less than 150 mg/dl

    Uncontrolled high blood pressure


    High blood pressure causes the heart to work harder leading to an enlarged, stiff heart. This causes the heart to not function efficiently and increases heart attack risk. As we go through these controllable risk factors remember that living with more than one risk factor increases your risk that much more. If you combine high blood pressure with obesity and high cholesterol levels your heart attack risk increases drastically.


    The Joint National Committee defines a normal blood pressure as:


    Systolic (top) blood pressure below 120 mm Hg
    Diastolic (bottom) blood pressure below 80 mm Hg


    Sedentary Lifestyle


    Being physically active prevent heart disease and helps you manage blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, and your weight. If you are physically inactive your risk for heart disease is increased.




    Like high blood pressure, obesity causes the heart to work harder which increases your heart disease risk even if you have no other risk factors. Being obese also contributes to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.




    Diabetes, whether well-controlled or not, greatly increases your risk of developing heart disease. If you have diabetes it's important to work with your physician to ensure your diabetes is under control.


    High stress levels


    Living with high levels of stress can impact heart disease risk. Some individuals cope with stress by overeating, smoking, or smoking more than they normally would.


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    Consuming excess alcohol can increase blood pressure, elevate triglycerides, and lead to weight gain which can all result in an increased risk for heart disease.


    Consuming a moderate amount of alcohol has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease. Moderate amounts equal one drink for men and two drinks for men per day. One drink is defined as 1 - ½ fluid ounces of 80-proof spirits, 1 fluid ounce 100-proof spirits, 4 fluid ounces of wine, or 12 fluid ounces of beer. If you do not currently drink it is not recommended that you start!


    What can you do with this information?


    Take these controllable risk factors and identify where you can make changes to reduce your heart disease risk. For example:


    1. If you smoke, stop. . .or at least work to cut back until you are able to stop.
    2. If you have high cholesterol or high blood pressure make diet and lifestyle changes to bring your levels within normal. When necessary use medications to control your levels.
    3. If you are inactive start increasing your activity level everyday.
    4. If you are obese take steps to lose weight.
    5. If you have diabetes work closely with your physician to maintain control.
    6. If you experience high levels of stress learn and implement healthy techniques to cope.
    7. If you drink alcohol to excess, cut back to a moderate intake.


    Be sure to sign up for the free e-course How to Lower Cholesterol in 8 Simple Steps provided courtesy of Health Central dietitian Lisa Nelson at http://lowercholesterolwithlisa.com.

Published On: April 11, 2011