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The Risk Factors for Heart Disease You Should Know Now

Learn five common risk factors for heart disease and how to help prevent the leading cause of death. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, but in many cases it's avoidable by healthy lifestyle choices. The Cleveland Clinic states, "Ninety percent of the nearly 18 million heart disease cases worldwide could be prevented by people adopting a healthier diet, doing regular exercise, and not smoking." That said there are risk factors that can't be modified and Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with Dr. Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies who shares five risk factors of heart disease everyone should know. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What to Know About Heart Disease

closeup man's chest heart attack

Dr. Mitchell says, "The cardiovascular system comprises the heart and blood vessels, including arteries, veins, and capillaries. The circulatory system carries oxygen-rich blood, nutrients, and hormones to cells throughout the body and removes carbon dioxide and other waste products. The heart pumps blood through the network of blood vessels, which comprise the circulatory system. The cardiovascular system is vital for maintaining a healthy body, as it transports oxygen and nutrients to cells and removes waste products from the body. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and is a significant health concern worldwide. Many risk factors for heart disease include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, and obesity. By understanding these risk factors that impact our cardiovascular system, we can take steps to reduce our risk of developing heart disease."



man having blood pressure checked
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Dr. Mitchell explains, "High blood pressure and high cholesterol strain the heart and arteries, making it difficult for blood to flow freely. Diabetes can damage the heart muscle, making it difficult for the heart to pump effectively. Smoking damages the lining of the arteries, making it easier for plaque to build up and restrict blood flow. And finally, family history plays a role because heart disease is often genetic. However, even if you have one or more risk factors, you can still take steps to reduce your risk of developing heart disease. Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and avoiding tobacco products are all excellent ways to protect your heart."


High Cholesterol

HDL cholesterol

"High cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease because it can lead to plaque buildup in your arteries," Dr. Mitchell explains. "Plaque is made up of fat, calcium, and other substances found in the blood. Over time, plaque can harden and narrow your arteries, making it difficult for blood to flow through them. This increased pressure on your arteries can lead to a heart attack or stroke. While cholesterol is not necessarily harmful, too much cholesterol in the blood can increase your risk for heart disease. That's why it's essential to check your cholesterol regularly and work with your doctor to keep it healthy."



Young diabetic woman checking her blood sugar levels.

Dr. Mitchell tells us, "Diabetes is a risk factor for heart disease for a few different reasons. First, diabetes can cause high blood sugar levels, leading to atherosclerosis or the hardening of the arteries. This condition narrows the arteries and makes it more difficult for blood to flow freely. In addition, diabetes can also cause high blood pressure, which puts additional strain on the heart. Finally, diabetes also increases the level of LDL ("bad cholesterol")cholesterol in the blood, which can further contribute to atherosclerosis. As a result, diabetes is a severe risk factor for heart disease and should be managed carefully to reduce the risk of developing this condition."



Hand stubbed out cigarette in a transparent ashtray on wooden table

"Cigarette smoking is a well-known risk factor for heart disease," Dr. Mitchell emphasizes. "There are numerous ways in which smoking contributes to the development of heart disease—first, smoking damages the lining of the arteries, which can lead to a buildup of plaque. Second, smoking increases heart rate and blood pressure, which puts additional strain on the heart. Third, smoking decreases the levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and increases the levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol. Finally, smoking also decreases oxygen levels in the blood, damaging the heart muscle. All these factors make smokers more likely to develop heart disease than non-smokers."


Family History

woman having heart attack

According to Dr. Mitchell, "Family history is a risk factor for heart disease because it can provide information about a person's genetic predisposition to the condition. Heart disease is caused by genetics, lifestyle choices, and environmental factors. For example, a family member with heart disease increases a person's risk of developing the condition because it suggests that they may have inherited genes that make them more susceptible to heart disease. While family history cannot be changed, knowing about this risk factor can help people make lifestyle choices that may reduce their risk of developing heart disease. For example, people with a family history of heart disease may be more likely to benefit from lifestyle changes such as exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet."

Dr. Mitchell says this "doesn't constitute medical advice and by no means are these answers meant to be comprehensive. Rather, it's to encourage discussions about health choices."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather