Heart Disease Risk Factors: What You Need to Know
By Viviana Navas, MD - Cleveland Clinic Florida Cardiologist / December 1, 2014

Your heart is your body's engine, and it deserves to be taken care of. Many people don't realize that they are not living a healthy heart life. Learning the risks of heart disease can help you be your own heart health advocate.

Most heart and blood vessel problems develop over time and occur when arteries develop atherosclerosis, the gradual buildup of plaque inside the arteries. If left unchecked, significant plaque buildup can lead to reduced blood flow through the arteries and eventually to blood clots that occur when plaques rupture. Ultimately, it is the effect of clots on the flow of blood to the heart or brain that can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

A number of risk factors, from hereditary genetic conditions (non-modifiable) to entirely controllable habits (modifiable) like smoking and a poor diet, contribute to the onset of heart disease. High cholesterol, high blood pressure, limited physical activity, obesity, diabetes and tobacco use are all risk factors for heart disease. Through a combination of treatments and healthy lifestyle choices, the risk of heart disease and stroke can be significantly decreased.
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What are the risk factors for heart disease?

An estimated 17.1 million people die of cardiovascular diseases every year, according to the World Heart Federation. There are many risk factors that contribute to the development of heart disease. It is important to know that some risk factors, called "non-modifiable risk factors," cannot be changed, but some risk factors, called "modifiable risk factors," can be controlled or treated. The more risk factors you have, the greater your chance of developing heart disease. And higher levels of each risk factor correlate with a higher risk for heart disease.

Modifiable risk factors

is the single biggest risk factor for stroke. It also plays a significant role in heart attacks. It can be prevented and successfully treated, but only if you have it diagnosed and stick to your recommended management plan.

Abnormal blood lipid levels, that is high total cholesterol, high levels of triglycerides, high levels of low-density lipoprotein or low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol all increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Changing to a healthy diet, exercise and medication can modify your blood lipid profile.

Tobacco use, whether it is smoking or chewing tobacco, increases risks of heart disease. The risk is especially high if you started smoking when young, smoke heavily or are a woman. Stopping tobacco use can reduce your risk of heart disease significantly, no matter how long you have smoked. Non-smokers exposed to secondhand smoke increase their risk of heart disease as well.

Physical inactivity increases the risk of heart disease and stroke by 50%. People who don't exercise regularly are 1.5 times more likely to develop heart disease. That's why exercise is such an important part of a heart healthy lifestyle.

Obesity or being overweight, especially if a lot of weight is located in your waist area, increases your risk for health problems, including high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, high triglycerides, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Type II diabetes is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke. Having diabetes makes you twice as likely as someone who does not, to develop heart disease. If you do not control diabetes then you are more likely to develop heart disease at an earlier age than other people, and it will be more devastating. If you are a pre-menopausal woman, your diabetes cancels out the protective effect of estrogen and your risk of heart disease rises significantly.

What can you do you improve your heart health?

Know the risk factors, and be sure to talk to you doctor about the ones that apply to you. Take action to change your lifestyle, and work to prevent your modifiable risk factors from compromising your heart health.

For the past 20 consecutive years, U.S. News & World Report has named Cleveland Clinic in Ohio the top medical center in the United States for the treatment of heart disease. Cleveland Clinic Florida is proud to be part of such an impressive legacy of outstanding patient care. Cardiologists and cardiac surgeons offer the same integrated and cutting-edge services for the prevention, evaluation, and management of all forms of heart disease that are available in Ohio. This is just one of the reasons why patients travel from around the globe to Cleveland Clinic Florida, their destination for healthcare.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, call toll-free 800.639.DOCTOR, or visit

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