Heart Disease: Assessing Your Risk

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Are you at high risk for heart disease? Take a moment to consider your lifestyle, family history, and general health. You and your doctor can use this information to tackle potential problems and maybe even lower your risk.

Path to Improved Health

The following factors may impact your risk of heart disease.


Men older than 45 years of age and women older than 55 years of age (or who have gone through menopause) are at greater risk for heart disease. Also, the rates of heart attack over the last 20 years have been increasing for women 35 to 54 years of age.

Family history

It is important for you to know what diseases and conditions run in your family and to tell your doctor. Talk to your parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, and uncles. Ask them who in your family has had a heart attack, stroke, or other serious health problem. With this information, your doctor can recommend the best kinds of screening tests and preventive treatments.


If you don’t know your cholesterol level, ask your doctor if you should have it checked. There are good (HDL cholesterol) and bad (LDL cholesterol) types. To reduce and prevent high levels of bad cholesterol, eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. Some people who have high cholesterol levels may also need to take medicine to keep their levels under control.

Blood pressure

If your blood pressure is high, there are things you can do to lower it. Try:

  • Losing weight.
  • Exercising.
  • Not smoking.
  • Cutting down on sodium (salt).
  • Cutting down on alcohol.

Many people may also need to take medicine to control their blood pressure.


Quitting smoking is the single best change you can make for your health. Talk to your family doctor about how to quit and stay tobacco-free. If you live with a smoker, breathing his or her smoke can also affect your health. Encourage the smoker to quit.


A healthy diet includes vegetables, fruits, lean meats, fish, beans, whole grains, and healthy fats. Limit the amount of processed foods (such as hot dogs), white flour (such as crackers and white bread), and sweet or sugary foods (such as soda and dessert foods) you eat. You may also need to avoid foods that are high in sodium, which can increase blood pressure. Sodium is found in table salt and many prepared foods, especially canned foods.

Although some research suggests alcohol can help protect against heart disease, moderation is the key. Limit how much alcohol you drink. This means no more than one alcoholic drink per day for women, and two alcoholic drinks a day for men.

The Mediterranean Diet is one good example of a heart-healthy diet that follows these guidelines. If you have questions about making changes to your diet, talk to your doctor. He or she can help you make better choices or refer you to a dietician.


Being overweight puts extra strain on your heart and blood vessels. A healthy diet with portion control, wise food choices, and regular exercise can help you lose weight gradually and safely. It can also help you keep it off. Talk to your doctor about the best ways for you to lose weight.


Exercise can help prevent heart disease and many other health problems. You’ll also feel better and help keep your weight under control if you exercise regularly. If you haven’t exercised for a while or have health problems, talk to your doctor before you start an exercise program. Exercising 30 to 60 minutes, 4 to 6 times a week is a good goal, but any amount is better than none.

Things to Consider

Heart disease can lead to heart attack or stroke. Often there are warning signs of heart disease. These can include elevated “bad” cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. But these warning signs don’t always have symptoms. That is why it is important to work with your doctor to assess your risk.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • What are the warning signs for heart disease?
  • Is my blood pressure in the normal range?
  • Do I have high cholesterol levels?
  • Can I be at risk for heart disease even if I have no family history of heart disease?
  • How often should I be monitored for heart disease?


American Heart Association: What is Cardiovascular Disease?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Heart Disease

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