Risk Factors and Causes of Heart Disease

Risk factors for cardiovascular disease include unmodifiable factors (i.e., factors that cannot be changed) and modifiable factors (i.e., risk factors that may be controlled or reduced by lifestyle choices and medications).

Unmodifiable risk factors include the following:

  • Age (older than 65 years old)
  • Family history of heart disease (especially before age 50)
  • Male gender
  • Menopause in women (Prior to menopause, women have a lower risk than men, but after menopause, the risk is approximately the same in women as it is in men.)

The Framingham Heart Study has shown that having a sibling (i.e., brother or sister) with heart disease is a strong risk factor for the condition. It is unclear whether this increased risk (as high as 45%) is due to genetic factors or to similar childhood lifestyles.

In August 2012, researchers reported results from two studies indicating that people with blood types A, B or AB had a higher risk of heart disease that people with type O blood. More research is needed to determine the biological processes behind blood type and heart disease risk. Understanding more about blood type may help health care providers find more effective ways to treat—and prevent— heart disease.

Modifiable risk factors include the following:

  • Diabetes
  • Elevated C-reactive protein level (indicates inflammation in the body)
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • High cholesterol (hypercholesterolemia; especially high levels of "bad" cholesterol [LDL] and low levels of "good" cholesterol [HDL])
  • High blood homocysteine levels
  • Inactivity (sedentary lifestyle)
  • Obesity
  • Smoking

Additional Heart Disease Risk Factors

Studies have shown that excess weight in the midsection (belly or abdomen) increases the risk for heart disease. According to additional studies, a diet high in sodium combined with low potassium levels increases the risk for high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Results of a study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and released in February 2011, showed that abnormal heart rate turbulence may increase the risk for heart disease in older people with few other risk factors. Heart rate turbulence, which is measured by analyzing the heart's electrical activity, identifies how the heart responds to occasional irregular contractions.

Publication Review By: Karen Larson, M.D., Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 10 Feb 2006

Last Modified: 17 Aug 2012