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Heart Attack: Risk Factors

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What is a risk factor?

Heart attacks can occur in people of all ages. Some people are more likely than others to have a heart attack. Your chance of having a heart attack is based partly on risk factors.

A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of illness, accident, or other harmful events. Some risk factors for a heart attack cannot be changed. For instance, you cannot change your age and family history. There are other risk factors that can be controlled. You can change the way you do some things to decrease your chances of having a heart attack.

Heart attack and risk factors

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction (MI), occurs when blood is blocked from flowing to the heart. When this happens, heart muscle cells don’t get the oxygen they need. This damages the heart cells, and they begin to die. A number of things increase your chances of having a heart attack.

Things you cannot change

Family history

Your risks are higher if a family member has had heart problems. If your father, grandfather, or brother has been diagnosed with heart disease before age 55, you are at higher risk for having a heart attack. If your mother, grandmother, or sister was diagnosed with heart disease before age 65, you also have a higher risk.


If you are a man, your risk for heart attack increases at age 45. If you are a woman, your risk increases after age 55.

Previous coronary heart disease

Certain conditions increase your risk for having a heart attack. These include fatty deposits inside your arteries (atherosclerosis, pronounced ATH-er-ohskler- OH-sis), a previous heart attack, chest pain related to a lack of oxygen in heart muscle (angina, pronounced ANji-nuh), or a prior heart bypass surgery.

Things you can change or control


Smoking has effects that may block blood from flowing smoothly to heart muscle. The nicotine in cigarettes causes your arteries to narrow. Smoking also increases the build-up of fat in your arteries and causes your blood to make clots. These effects can lead to higher blood pressure. All of these things can increase your risk for heart attack. When you quit smoking, you reduce your risk. Remember, it is never too late to quit. If you need help to quit smoking, call 1-800-533-UPMC (8762).

High blood pressure

Another name for high blood pressure is hypertension. When your blood pressure is high, arteries become damaged inside. As a result, fatty deposits can stick more easily to the arteries. The arteries become narrower because of the fatty deposits. This narrowing of the arteries can decrease blood flow to the heart.

You can greatly reduce your risk of heart attack by keeping your blood pressure under control. Talk to your doctor to learn what your blood pressure should be. Starting at age 55, you should get your blood pressure checked twice a year, unless your doctor wants it checked more often. This helps you keep your blood pressure in the range set by your doctor.

High cholesterol

An unhealthy cholesterol balance can lead to fat deposits in the arteries. These deposits are called plaque. Plaque narrows the arteries and decreases blood flow to the heart, which can cause a heart attack. You should have your cholesterol checked first at age 20. After that, follow your doctor’s guidelines for regular testing.

To keep your cholesterol balance healthy, you may need diet, exercise, and medicine. If you have already had a heart attack, it is very important to control your cholesterol to prevent another one.

Overweight and obesity

 Excess weight increases your risk of heart attack. When you are overweight, your heart has to work harder to pump blood. As time goes on, the heart grows larger and doesn’t work as well. People who have a heart attack often have excess body fat around their lower belly or abdomen. This is sometimes called an “apple shape.” Obesity can bring other risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Weight control and exercise improve blood flow and help reduce other risk factors as well.

Lack of physical activity

Exercise is important to help control weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes. These conditions are all risk factors for heart attack. See your doctor before starting an exercise program. Then, if your doctor says you may, try to exercise every day. Even a little exercise helps. You can decrease your risk for heart attack by exercising 20 to 30 minutes each day.


Diabetes is a disease related to high blood sugar (blood glucose). When your blood sugar rises too high, damage can occur to the inside of your arteries. As a result, fatty deposits can stick more easily to the arteries. This narrows the arteries and can decrease blood flow to the heart. In addition, one of the fatty substances can break off and suddenly block blood flow to the heart. So diabetes increases your risk for heart attack.

If you have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, it is important to keep your blood glucose within normal range: 60-100 mg/dl. Work closely with your doctor and monitor your blood glucose several times each day. Take your anti-diabetes drugs as prescribed and follow your meal plan. Keeping your blood glucose within a normal range can decrease your risk for heart attack.