Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors
Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team
What are cardiovascular disease risk factors?
Risk factors for cardiovascular disease are particular habits, behaviors, circumstances or conditions that increase a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease, including lack of exercise, unhealthy eating, smoking, diabetes, age and family history.
Cardiovascular disease is a broad, umbrella term used to describe all conditions affecting the heart and circulatory system, including coronary heart disease, stroke, heart attack and aortic disease. 1
Good to know: Cardiovascular disease is sometimes called “heart disease”, but in medical terms, they are not exactly the same thing. Heart disease is a general term for conditions affecting the structure of the heart and the way it functions. All heart diseases are cardiovascular diseases. However, not all cardiovascular diseases are heart diseases. An example is stroke, which affects blood vessels in the brain, but not the heart itself. 2
Check out Ada’s cardiovascular disease guide for more information.
Cardiovascular disease risk factors can be split into two categories: modifiable and non-modifiable. 3 Non-modifiable cardiovascular disease risk factors are those that cannot be changed. These include a person’s age, ethnicity and family history (genetics cannot be changed), among other factors. Modifiable cardiovascular disease risk factors are those that can be reduced or controlled with altered behavior. By making certain lifestyle changes, people are able to lower their chances of developing cardiovascular disease. Examples include smoking, diet and exercise.
Possessing one or more risk factors increases a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease; it does not, however, mean that cardiovascular disease is an inevitability. 1
There is a genetic element to cardiovascular disease, meaning a family history of the condition is considered to be a risk factor. Generally, this applies if a person’s first-degree relative developed CVD at what may be considered a relatively young age. This is the case if the person’s father or brother developed cardiovascular disease before the age of 55, or their mother or sister developed it before the age of 65. 4 5
A family history of high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes can also increase one’s chances of developing these conditions, which can in turn increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Having a family history of heart disease does not mean CVD is inevitable, but does make it more likely. Leading a healthy lifestyle is generally recommended to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in those with a genetic predisposition to the condition.
Older people are at greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Although the process of aging cannot be changed, leading a generally healthy lifestyle is recommended to help reduce the likelihood of developing heart and circulatory conditions.
Statistics suggest that people of South Asian, African or Caribbean descent have a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Type 2 diabetes – a risk factor in itself for cardiovascular disease – also seems to be more prevalent among these groups. The reasons for this are difficult to define. However, leading a healthy lifestyle is generally recommended as a way for people from all backgrounds to help prevent heart and circulatory disease from developing. 6 7
While it may have long been seen as a man’s disease, the risk of cardiovascular disease in women has been underestimated, and symptoms may go unrecognized, complicating diagnosis and treatment. Though CVD risk factors are shared by men and women, some may be more prevalent and/or more significant for one sex or gender; for example, having diabetes may be a stronger risk for certain types of CVD in women. Research is ongoing. 8 9 10 11
Women tend to develop cardiovascular disease at an older age than men. This later age of onset in women is thought to be linked to the hormonal changes that follow menopause. 8 9 10 11
If you are concerned about your cardiovascular disease risk profile, it is advisable to consult a doctor, who should be able to answer any questions you may have.
People who have a low socioeconomic status seem to be at a greater risk of cardiovascular disease. Although the reasons behind this are multiple and their relationships complex, diet is generally considered to be one of the biggest factors, with those from a higher socioeconomic background typically having greater access to a more nutritionally-balanced diet. 12
High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – also known as “bad cholesterol” – are linked to a range of cardiovascular diseases. Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is carried around the body by proteins. If too much LDL cholesterol is present, it can cause fatty substances to build up in the artery walls and lead to complications.
High levels of LDL cholesterol are often caused by factors such as an unhealthy diet, smoking, physical inactivity, high alcohol intake and liver and kidney disease. To reduce LDL cholesterol levels, people can eat a balanced diet, undertake regular exercise and quit smoking. Those with extremely high levels of LDL cholesterol may be prescribed medication to lower them, most often statins.
Read more about how you can lower high cholesterol naturally.
Good to know: High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is known as “good cholesterol”. This cholesterol transports cholesterol and fats from around the body to the liver, where they can be removed. Unlike LDL, it is generally a good thing to have a high level of HDL, as this can help lower one’s risk of developing heart disease or having a stroke. Eating healthily, staying active, avoiding tobacco and limiting alcohol intake can all help to increase HDL cholesterol levels. 13
High blood pressure (hypertension)
High blood pressure, known as hypertension, is another contributing factor to cardiovascular disease, including heart failure, stroke and heart attack. High blood pressure is often symptomless, but can be easily diagnosed by a doctor, using a routine test.
High blood pressure is often linked to being overweight, physical inactivity, a high intake of salt or alcohol or a family history of the disorder, but in some cases may have no apparent cause. Lifestyle changes may help to reduce high blood pressure and, in severe cases, medication may be prescribed. 14
Having diabetes, a condition that causes high levels of glucose in the blood, is a risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease. High glucose levels can damage the artery walls and make the buildup of fatty deposits (atheroma) more likely. If these fatty deposits occur in the coronary arteries, they can lead to possible coronary heart disease and heart attack.
There are two types of diabetes: type 1, which involves the body being unable to produce insulin and which usually develops in children and young adults, and type 2 diabetes, which is more likely to affect older people, though is becoming more common in younger people, and which involves the body either not making enough insulin or the body becoming resistant to insulin. Type 2 diabetes is closely associated with a lifestyle that leads to being overweight and physical inactivity.
Eating a balanced diet, taking regular exercise and leading a generally healthy lifestyle can both help manage diabetes in those who already have the condition and help prevent the onset of the condition in those that don’t. In people with diabetes, careful management of blood sugar levels is also very important in helping to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. 15
Smoking tobacco significantly increases the chance of developing cardiovascular disease. Smoking damages and narrows the arteries, making angina pectoris and heart attack more likely. Angina pectoris is a condition characterized by pain or discomfort in the center of the chest, caused by the heart muscle not getting enough blood. 16 17 Nicotine also makes the heart beat faster and increases blood pressure, meaning the heart has to work harder to pump blood around the body. 18
Soon after quitting smoking, health benefits such as improved circulation, better taste and smell and a stronger immune system can usually be noticed. Doctors and other health professionals are able to offer advice on how to quit smoking. 19 20
Physical inactivity is an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Not exercising regularly increases a person’s chances of being overweight, of having high blood pressure and of developing other conditions that make cardiovascular disease more likely. 21
To see substantial health benefits, experts recommend that adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate to high-intensity exercise per week. If this is not possible, any amount of physical activity is always preferable to none at all. 22
Being overweight (obesity)
Being overweight is another leading risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Eating an unhealthy diet and being physically inactive are both contributing factors to being overweight, which is generally defined as having a body mass index (BMI) outside the normal range. 23
Taking steps to lose weight through lifestyle and dietary changes can help reduce the risk of a range of cardiovascular conditions, including coronary heart disease and congestive heart failure.
Eating an unhealthy diet is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease. To lower the risk, a balanced diet made up of plenty of fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates and protein should be aimed at and excess fats, salts and sugars avoided.
Alcohol should also be consumed in moderation, if at all. In many countries, this is defined as a maximum of 14 units of alcohol per week, with some experts recommending half that for women. The week should include several alcohol-free days. One unit is equal to approximately one small glass of beer or wine, or one “shot” of distilled spirits or liquor, e.g. whisky, gin. 24 25 26
Cardiovascular disease risk factors FAQs
Q: What are heart disease risk factors?
A: Risk factors for heart disease and other cardiovascular disease include:
- Lack of exercise
- High blood pressure
- High LDL or low HDL cholesterol levels
- Family history of heart disease or other cardiovascular disease
For further risk factors, see above.
Q: What are examples of modifiable risk factors for cardiovascular disease?
A: Modifiable risk factors are those that you can control. Examples of modifiable risk factors for cardiovascular disease include:
- Physical inactivity
Q: What are examples of non-modifiable risk factors for cardiovascular disease?
A: Non-modifiable risk factors are those that you cannot control. Examples of non-modifiable risk factors for cardiovascular disease include:
- Family history (genetics)
Q: Can stress cause heart disease?
A: The link between stress and cardiovascular disease is not well understood. However, it is known that stress can influence many of the well-established risk factors for CVD, including high blood pressure, smoking, lack of exercise, eating an unhealthy diet and drinking large amounts of alcohol. In addition, it is thought that stress in the form of job strain and long working hours may somewhat increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease. 27 28 29 30
Q: Where can I do a CVD risk factor assessment or screening?
A: While various cardiovascular disease risk factor calculators and assessment tools exist online, the only way to obtain an accurate understanding of a particular person’s risk is by seeing a licensed doctor.
Q: How can I reduce heart disease risk factors?
A: General recommendations include eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise as part of a balanced lifestyle, as well as avoiding tobacco products and limiting alcohol intake. Furthermore, managing obesity as well as conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, with the help of a doctor, is important.
Other names for cardiovascular disease risk factors
- CVD risk factors
- Heart disease risk factors
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