6 Major Risk Factors for Coronary Artery Disease
Discover what makes you vulnerable to heart disease - and how to protect yourself from this leading cause of death.

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6 Major Risk Factors for Coronary Artery Disease

In everyday life, you have a better chance of avoiding danger if you know what it looks like. Understanding what coronary artery disease (CAD) is and your risk factors for it is no different.

Coronary arteries supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart. Coronary artery disease occurs when a buildup called plaque sticks to the artery walls. Over time, the arteries narrow and can become blocked. The heart gets starved for oxygen.

CAD is the leading cause of death in this country. Still, many people don't know they have it until they have chest pain or a heart attack. And less commonly, sometimes people with CAD have no pain.

Knowing your risk factors and taking steps to improve your health may help delay or even prevent CAD. Some risk factors are out of your control. Those include your age, gender or family history of heart disease. Having these risk factors doesn't mean that you will develop CAD. Instead, try to lower the risk factors within your control.

What are the risk factors?
Here are the six major controllable risk factors for coronary artery disease:

  • Tobacco smoke. A smoker's risk of developing CAD is two to four times that of nonsmokers. If you have CAD, smoking cigarettes can put you at higher risk for sudden cardiac death. This is a fatal heart attack where the heart stops beating. People who smoke cigars or pipes are also at higher risk for CAD.
  • High cholesterol levels. The higher your bad cholesterol and lower your good cholesterol, the greater your risk of CAD. Your doctor can check your cholesterol. He or she may recommend a diet and exercise program to help lower your levels. The doctor may also want you to take medicine.
  • High blood pressure. High blood pressure makes the heart work too hard. Over time, the heart muscle thickens and stiffens. High blood pressure combined with another risk factor like smoking, high cholesterol or obesity greatly raises the risk of heart attack.
  • Diabetes. With diabetes, the body either does not make enough insulin or does not use it properly. That results in high blood sugar (glucose) levels. An estimated 65 percent of people with diabetes die from some form of coronary disease. If you have diabetes, it's very important to follow your doctor's instructions and manage your blood sugar levels well.
  • Excess weight. Even if you have no other risk factors, carrying excess body fat puts you at greater risk for heart disease. Carrying your extra weight at the waist further raises your risk. Other risk factors can be the direct result of obesity. If you're overweight, you can lower your risk for CAD by losing as little as 10 percent of your current weight.
  • Physical inactivity. When you are physically active, you take an important step in lowering your risks for CAD. Moderate exercise or physical activity has a positive impact if done regularly over time.

How can you lower your risk?
Your heart will thank you if you do all that you can to eliminate risk factors. Aim to:

  • Stop smoking, if you smoke. Ask your doctor for help with quitting. Avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Eat a balanced, heart-friendly diet. Focus on foods low in added sugars, solid fats, salt and refined grains. Eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy and lean proteins such as low-mercury seafood or skinless poultry.
  • Aim for a healthy weight. Work with your health care team on a plan that will maximize your success.
  • Get moving. Regular physical activity is good for you. It can help lower your risk of CAD.

Note: If you are physically inactive or have a health condition such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, pregnancy or other symptoms, check with your doctor before starting an exercise program. He or she can tell you what types of activities are safe and suitable for you.

By Mary Small, Contributing Writer
Created on 05/03/2000
Updated on 09/03/2013
  • National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute. What is coronary heart disease?
  • National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute. Exploring coronary heart disease. Who is at risk for coronary heart disease?
  • National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute. What is sudden cardiac arrest?
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