Heart Disease Risk Factors & Prevention

Take the Risks to Heart

Heart disease is the leading killer of both men and women nationwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of all Americans are at risk for developing the condition.

Memorial Health System encourages everyone to learn more about their risk factors for heart disease during National Heart Awareness Month in February—and make lifestyle choices to reduce that risk year-round.

Some of these choices are obvious—eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise—while others are less widely known. Here are a few risk factors for heart disease that you may not have heard before.

Did You Know?

Getting stressed out can invite heart disease in.

Researchers aren’t sure exactly how stress is linked to heart disease, but its effect on the choices we make may hold the key.

According to the American Heart Association, people often attempt to manage stress using behaviors that increase the risk for heart disease: overeating, smoking and drinking too much alcohol. People who have busy schedules also tend to skip exercise and eat unhealthy foods.

Chronic stress also puts a strain on the body by causing the release of hormones that increase breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. This “fight or flight” response is useful when we are in dangerous situations, but can cause problems when activated over the long-term.

Changing unhealthy behaviors can benefit your heart while reducing stress at the same time. Here are some small steps that may help.

  • Make sure you eat a balanced diet and schedule regular physical activity. If your days are busy, making time for healthy food and exercise may seem daunting. But taking time out to care for yourself can decrease stress and improve your well-being.
  • Understand what helps you relax. Make a list of activities you find relaxing—for example, yoga, reading, talking with a friend or meditation. Block out time each day for one activity on the list.
  • Stay positive. According to researchers, heart disease patients who remain upbeat are less likely to die than those with a negative attitude.
  • Spend time “unplugged.” In today’s wired world, stress is everywhere. Escape the headlines for a while by turning off the TV, logging off from the Internet and putting down electronic devices. If worries about your work follow you home at night, avoid checking email during the evening hours.
  • Seek professional help if needed. If you are overwhelmed, consider seeking help from a counselor or other mental-health professional.



Over time, stress can take its toll on the body and increase the risk for heart disease. But by making sure that everyday stress doesn’t control our lives, we can protect ourselves from its impact.

A lack of shuteye can open the door to heart disease.

A good night’s sleep makes everyone feel better the next day. But research shows that sleep may also have serious long-term implications for your health.

A study published in 2011 in the European Heart Journal found that people who sleep less than six hours per night have a 48 percent greater chance of developing heart disease than their peers, and a 15 percent greater chance of suffering a stroke.

But too much sleep is also a red flag. The researchers found that people who sleep more than nine hours a night also have a greater risk of heart disease.

Most people need between six to eight hours of sleep per night, although that number can vary with age. Young people tend to require more sleep, while older people need less.

People who are sleep-deprived often have a slower metabolism and struggle to lose weight. As a result, they may also have high blood pressure, a significant risk factor for heart disease.

Here are a few simple tips for improving sleep:

  • Set a relaxing routine. Turn off your electronic devices about an hour before bedtime and focus on relaxing activities like reading, meditation, prayer or drinking a cup of herbal (non-caffeinated) tea. A warm bath or shower can also help.
  • Stick to a schedule. Try to go to bed and wake up at around the same time every day—even on the weekends.
  • Watch what you eat and drink. Do not drink coffee, tea or caffeinated sodas for several hours before bedtime, as the effects of these stimulants can take time to wear off. Alcohol, nicotine and heavy meals can also disrupt sleep.
  • Exercise. Staying active during the day can improve sleep—the American Heart Association advises around 40 minutes of moderate to high-intensity aerobic exercise three to four times a week.


If you are still struggling to fall asleep—or stay asleep—after putting these tips into practice, consult your doctor. A sleep study may help diagnose conditions like sleep apnea, which are also linked to heart disease and stroke.

Skipping breakfast can put heart disease on your plate.

You’ve probably heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But did you know that it can also impact your risk for heart disease?

A 2013 study from the School of Public Health at Harvard University found that men who regularly skipped breakfast were 27 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack or die from coronary artery disease than men who ate breakfast.

Researchers surmised that the men who did not eat breakfast grew hungrier as the day went on and overcompensated by eating more food at night—leading to changes in their metabolism that put them at greater risk for heart disease.

Studies have also found that adults who eat breakfast are less likely to be overweight, more likely to control their blood sugar levels and eat less fat and cholesterol throughout the day. But with busy morning schedules, finding time for breakfast can be difficult.

Here are some tips for making the most of your breakfast:

  • Be prepared. On weekday mornings, treat breakfast like lunch: pack it up the night before so you can grab it on the way out the door the next morning.
  • Eat a well-rounded meal. Make sure your breakfast includes whole grains, lean protein, fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy. This will keep you from feeling hungry at mid-morning.
  • Make good cereal choices. Breakfast cereal can be a healthy choice, but be sure to choose cereal that is made from whole grains and is high in fiber and low in sugar. Adding sliced fruit or nuts to the bowl, along with low-fat or skim milk, can increase its nutritious power.
  • Choose homemade. While store-bought donuts, muffins and smoothies are often full of sugar and offer little nutritional value, homemade versions can be adapted to include fresh fruit and whole grains. The American Heart Association offers heart-healthy recipes for these and other foods at heart.org/simplecooking.

You only need one of these other factors to be at risk.

In addition to the items listed above, other risk factors for heart disease include:

  • Being over age 50 or, in women, post-menopausal
  • Having an African-American or Hispanic American ethnic background
  • Having a parent or sibling who had a heart attack or stroke
  • A personal medical history of diabetes, heart disease or stroke
  • Blood pressure 140/90 mmHg or higher—or not knowing your blood pressure
  • Smoking, or living or working with someone who smokes
  • Being 20 pounds or more overweight
  • Getting fewer than 30 minutes of physical activity per day
  • Total cholesterol levels of 200 mg/dL or higher—or not knowing your cholesterol levels
  • HDL ("good") cholesterol less than 40 mg/dL—or not knowing your HDL level