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Risk Factors for Heart Disease

The American Heart Association (AHA) identifies factors that are most commonly found in people who have heart disease, also known as coronary artery disease (CAD). These factors can be divided into controllable risk factors and uncontrollable risk factors.

Preventive care is key for controlling heart disease risk factors. It is important that you see a primary care physician for annual check-ups and monitoring of blood pressure, cholesterol and other risk factors. To find a Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin primary care physician, call 1-800-DOCTORS.

Controllable Risk Factors for Heart Disease


Smoking is the biggest risk factor for sudden cardiac death. Cigarette smoking also acts with other risk factors to greatly increase your risk for heart disease. It is never too late to quit and add extra years and quality to your life. For information about smoking cessation, call Careconnection at 262-251-1001 or 800-246-8332.

High blood pressure

Blood pressure refers to how hard your blood presses on the inside lining of your arteries as it travels through the body. The harder the blood presses against the vessel walls, the more likely the vessels will thicken, become blocked, burst or sustain other life-threatening damage. Many Americans have high blood pressure - called hypertension - and don't even know it. Often, there are no obvious symptoms. That is why regular medical checkups are so important to help detect this disease.

High cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fatty substance produced by your body and found in many of the foods you eat. It is needed for normal body functions, such as cell wall protection, nerve impulse transmission and hormone production. However, high levels of cholesterol are associated with a greater risk of developing atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.

Two specific kinds of blood cholesterol are low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL-cholesterol, sometimes called "bad" cholesterol, causes the cholesterol to build up in the walls of your arteries. Thus, the more LDL you have in your blood, the greater your risk for heart disease. In contrast, HDL-cholesterol, sometimes called "good" cholesterol, helps your body get rid of the cholesterol in your blood. It is important that you regularly undergo a cholesterol screening to make sure your cholesterol level is healthy.

Lack of exercise

Exercise causes conditioning of the heart and skeletal muscle. The heart muscle in a well-conditioned person does not have to work as hard to circulate blood and nourish the body. People who lead inactive lives have a greater risk for developing heart disease and other risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.


Obesity results from the excessive accumulation of fat that exceeds the body's skeletal and physical standards. An increase in 20 percent or more of your ideal body weight is the point at which excess weight becomes a health risk. With obesity, the heart must work harder to nourish the extra tissue with blood. Extra pounds mean extra work for your heart.


Diabetes, or sugar in the blood, occurs when either the body is unable to produce enough of the hormone called insulin or is unable to use the available insulin effectively. When the body lacks insulin, sugar and starches cannot be used properly for energy, causing excess sugar to build up in the blood.

If left uncontrolled, diabetes may have long-term effects on the kidneys, eyes, brain, heart and the nervous system. More specifically, heart circulation can be impaired, accelerating the process of atherosclerosis.

To find a physician to help with any of these risk factors, call 1-800-DOCTORS.

Uncontrollable Risk Factors for Heart Disease


One can inherit the tendency towards having heart disease. If you have close relatives who have had coronary artery disease, especially if it was before the age of 50, your chances of having the disease increase. Even though you may inherit the tendency toward heart disease, you can help prevent or delay it by controlling your risk factors.


The older you become, the more likely you are to develop heart disease. A man's risk for CAD begins to increase at age 45. A woman's risk for CAD increases after menopause.

Male gender

Men have a greater risk of a heart attack than women do, and they have heart attacks earlier in life. Women have less risk for CAD until they experience menopause.


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