Are You at Risk for Heart Attack?

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You may already know that obesity is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, but did you know that there are several other factors that can increase your risk for this leading cause of death? The more risk factors you have, the greater your risk for developing cardiovascular disease, and some risk factors, like prior heart disease or stroke, diabetes, and smoking, carry greater weight than others in terms of increasing risk.

What Is Cardiovascular Disease?

The term cardiovascular disease, or CVD, refers to disease of the heart and blood vessels. This includes the blood vessels that supply the brain, so CVD also includes cerebrovascular disease, which encompasses strokes and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs).

Other specific conditions included under the broad diagnosis  of CVD are: high blood pressure, or hypertension; coronary artery disease; valvular heart disease, which is disease affecting the heart valves; congenital heart disease, which is heart disease that is present at birth—essentially, birth defects affecting the heart; heart failure; peripheral arterial disease (PAD); and many others.

Factors That Put You at Risk

Cardiovascular risk factors are those characteristics which increase a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease and having a cardiovascular event—meaning a heart attack, stroke, transient ischemic attack (TIA), aortic aneurysm, needing a coronary stent, or other arterial disease, such as disease of the carotid or peripheral arteries.

The following are recognized cardiovascular risk factors:

  • Prior cardiovascular disease—for instance, having already had a heart attack or a stent placed in a coronary artery is the greatest risk factor for developing further cardiovascular problems.
  • Prior stroke or TIA
  • Age greater than 45 for a man or greater than 55 for a woman

Most CVD Is Preventable

The good news is that the majority of these risk factors can be modified, and thus the majority of CVD is preventable. In fact, the American Heart Association notes that an estimated 80% of CVD can be prevented entirely.

While there is nothing you can do about your age or family history, you can quit smoking, get enough sleep, manage stress, control your blood pressure and cholesterol, get enough exercise, and make healthy lifestyle choices whenever possible. Losing as little as 5% of excess weight can significantly reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease and for other risk factors, like high blood pressure and diabetes, that also lead to CVD.


Goff DC, Lloyd-Jones DM, Bennett G, et al. 2013 ACC/AHA guideline on the assessment of cardiovascular risk: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. Circulation 2014;129:549-573.

Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs). World Health Organization fact sheet. Accessed at on June 9, 2014.

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