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Risk Factors 

Some conditions, as well as some lifestyle factors, can put people at a higher risk for developing heart disease. Everyone can take steps to lower their risk of heart disease and heart attack by addressing these risk factors. Control of risk factors is especially needed by people who already have heart disease. 

Heart Disease Conditions

High blood cholesterol is a condition in which your blood has too much cholesterol – a waxy, fat-like substance. It is produced by the liver or consumed in certain foods. It is needed by the body, and the liver makes enough for the body’s needs. 

When there is too much cholesterol in the body – because of diet and the rate at which cholesterol is processed – it is deposited in arteries (including those of the heart). This can lead to narrowing of the arteries, heart disease and other complications. The higher your blood cholesterol level, the greater your risk of heart disease and heart attack. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 50 percent of all heart attacks can be linked to high cholesterol. 

Cholesterol travels through the bloodstream in small packages called lipoproteins. Two major kinds of lipoproteins carry cholesterol throughout the body:

  • High-density lipoproteins (HDL). HDL cholesterol sometimes is called ‘good’ cholesterol. This is because it helps remove cholesterol from the arteries. A low HDL cholesterol level raises your risk of heart disease.
  • Low-density lipoproteins (LDL). LDL cholesterol sometimes is called ‘bad’ cholesterol. This is because it carries cholesterol to tissues, including your heart arteries. A high LDL cholesterol level raises your risk of heart disease. 

Many factors affect your cholesterol levels. For example, after menopause women’s LDL cholesterol levels tend to rise and their HDL cholesterol levels tend to fall. Other factors such as age, gender, diet and physical activity also affect your cholesterol levels. 

Healthy levels of both LDL and HDL cholesterol will prevent plaque from building up in your arteries. Routine blood tests can show whether your blood cholesterol levels are healthy. Talk with your doctor about having your cholesterol tested and what the results mean. 

High blood pressure (hypertension) is another major risk factor for heart disease. It is a condition where the pressure of the blood in the arteries is too high. There are often no symptoms to signal high blood pressure so many people are unaware that they have it. The only way to detect high blood pressure is to have it checked regularly. Lowering blood pressure by changes in lifestyle or by medication can lower the risk of heart disease and heart attack. 

Diabetes also increases a person’s risk for heart disease. With diabetes, the body either doesn’t make enough insulin, can’t use its own insulin as well as it should or both. This causes sugars to build up in the blood. 

Two out of three people with diabetes die from some form of heart or blood vessel disease. However, people with diabetes can manage their blood pressure and cholesterol to reduce their chance of heart attack or stroke. It is important to work with your health-care provider to help in managing it and controlling other risk factors. 

Heart Disease Behavior

Some behaviors or lifestyle habits put you at risk of heart disease. The presence of more than one risk factor can speed up the progression of heart disease and the more risk factors a person has, the higher his or her chance of having a major heart event such as a heart attack or stroke. 

Smoking tobacco or long-term exposure to secondhand smoke raises your risk of heart disease and heart attack. Smoking triggers a buildup of plaque in your arteries. Smoking also increases the risk of blood clots forming in the arteries. Nicotine raises blood pressure and carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen that blood can carry. In addition, blood clots can block plaque-narrowed arteries and cause a heart attack. Exposure to other people’s smoke can increase the risk of heart disease even for nonsmokers. 

The more you smoke, the greater your risk of heart attack. Studies show that if you quit smoking, you cut your risk of heart attack in half within a year. The benefits of quitting smoking occur no matter how long or how much you've smoked. Quitting smoking lowers a person's risk of heart disease greatly, even after many years of smoking. Call 1.800.QUIT.NOW to get free help to quit smoking from the North Dakota Tobacco Quitline or log onto www.nd.quitnet.com for a free web-based service. 

Physical inactivity is related to the development of heart disease. It also can impact other risk factors, including obesity, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, a low level of HDL (good) cholesterol and diabetes. You can reduce your risk by doing moderate-intensity physical activity for a total of 30 minutes on most, if not all, days of the week. 

Diet refers to the usual food and drink a person consumes (dietary pattern). Several aspects of dietary patterns have been linked to heart disease and related conditions. These include diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol, which raise blood cholesterol levels and promote atherosclerosis (a condition that occurs when too much plaque builds up in your arteries, causing them to narrow). 

Obesity is excess body fat. It is linked to higher LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels and to lower HDL (good) cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. Obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Only smoking exceeds obesity in contributing to the total U.S. death rate. Adults who are obese also are at a greater risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, arthritis, sleep apnea, respiratory problems and endometrial, breast, prostate and colon cancer. 

Excessive alcohol use leads to an increase in blood pressure and increases the risk for heart disease. It also increases blood levels of triglycerides, which contributes to atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries due to plaque buildup). 

Heart Disease Heredity

Heart disease can run in the family. Genetic factors likely play some role in high blood pressure, heart disease and other vascular conditions. However, it also is likely that people with a family history of heart disease share common environments and risk factors that increase their risk. The risk for heart disease can increase even more when heredity is combined with unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as smoking cigarettes and eating a poor diet.