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Heart Disease Signs and Risk Factors


The heart works 24 hours a day, pumping oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to the body. Blood is supplied to the heart through its coronary arteries. In coronary heart disease (CHD), plaques or fatty substances build up inside the walls of the arteries. The plaques also attract blood components, which stick to the artery wall lining. Called atherosclerosis, the process develops gradually, over many years. It often begins early in life, even in childhood.

The fatty buildup or plaque can break open and lead to the formation of a blood clot that seals the break. The clot reduces blood flow. The cycle of fatty buildup, plaque rupture, and blood clot formation causes the coronary arteries to narrow, reducing blood flow.

When too little blood reaches the heart, the condition is called ischemia. Chest pain, or angina, may occur. The pain can vary in occurrence and be mild and intermittent, or more pronounced and steady. It can be severe enough to make normal everyday activities difficult. The same inadequate blood supply also may cause no symptoms, a condition called silent ischemia.

If a blood clot suddenly cuts off most or all blood supply to the heart, a heart attack results. Cells in the heart muscle that do not receive enough oxygen-carrying blood begin to die. The more time that passes without treatment to restore blood flow, the greater the damage to the heart.

Signs of a Heart Attack

The average heart attack victim waits two or three hours before going to the hospital! But the drugs doctors use to dissolve blood clots work better the sooner you get them. This goes for both heart attack and stroke.

What to do if you have a Heart Attack

Call 911 if you have any of the classic signs listed below. Don’t drive yourself or have anyone else drive you. While you wait for the ambulance, chew an aspirin if you have one. Pain may be constant or come and go:

  • Pressure, squeezing, fullness, tightness, burning, or other aching under the breastbone
  • Other common places for pain include:
    • Inside arm and shoulder (usually left side)
    • Upper abdomen (stomach)
    • Between the shoulder blades
    • Neck and jaw
  • Shortness of breath, dizziness, weakness, clammy skin, sweating and nausea.

Women may not think they’re at risk of having a heart attack –but they are. Women are more likely to have a “silent” heart attack with less clear symptoms. The symptoms are often confused with indigestion:

  • Tingling or burning in the chest
  • Upset stomach, pain in the abdomen, nausea
  • Feeling weak and exhausted for no reason

Learn more about women and heart attacks!

Risk Factors

Cardiovascular disease strikes both men and women. However, “Risk Factors” increase the chances you will develop heart disease, and the more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to have heart disease. Some of us are at more risk for heart disease and stroke than others. For example:

  • Men 45 years or older
  • Women 50 years or older
  • People with a family history of heart disease – your father or brother had heart disease before age 55; your mother or sister had heart disease before age 65.

You can’t do anything about your age, sex or family history but there’s good news too. There are seven risk factors for heart disease that you can do something about.

7 Risk Factors You Can Control

1. High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)

High blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, and heart failure. High blood pressure usually has no symptoms. The only way to know if you have it is to get your blood pressure checked. Normal blood pressure is below 120/80. Anything over that should be watched and brought under control with lifestyle changes. Medication may be needed when lifestyle changes don’t lower blood pressure enough.

Things you can do to lower blood pressure:

  • Lose weight if needed
  • Diet – Boost your fruit, veggie, whole grain, and lean protein like fish and chicken without the skin intake. Limit animal fats like those found in red meat, whole milk, and butter. Eat as little trans fats (foods made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils) as possible.
  • Eat less salt
  • Get regular activity
  • If you drink alcohol, limit it to two drinks per day for men; one drink per day for women
  • Take prescription medication if needed

2. Tobacco Smoke

Smoking more than doubles your risk of heart disease. Nonsmokers who are around a lot of cigarette smoke have almost as much risk of heart attack as smokers. So avoid secondhand smoke!

Quit now. Here’s how:

  • Ask your doctor about aids to help you stop smoking (i.e. nicotine patches, gum, inhalers and medicines)
  • Check into stop-smoking classes and support groups
  • Be patient with yourself
  • Try these things instead of smoke:
    • Take slow, deep breaths for two minutes
    • Take a walk or do some stretching exercises
    • Call a friend who is a former smoker
    • Visit an online quit-smoking site
    • Enjoy a hobby

3. Being Overweight

If you’re overweight you are more likely to get heart disease even without the other risk factors. Being overweight can also go hand in hand with high blood pressure, poor cholesterol levels, and diabetes.

Lose now. Here’s how:

  • Figure out how many calories you need each day and eat 100-500 calories less than that each day. Visit www.choosemyplate.gov
  • Eat the recommended number of servings of fruits and veggies
  • Eat fewer calories from fat
  • Get more activity

4. Poor Blood Cholesterol Levels

Your total blood cholesterol level should ideally be below 200.

  • HDL (“good” cholesterol) should be at least 40, but 60 or more is ideal. More exercise can raise your HDL.
  • LDL (“bad” cholesterol) should be below 130. 100 or less is ideal, especially if you have other risk factors.
  • Triglycerides, another fatty substance in the blood, should be below 150.
  • Some fats can improve cholesterol levels. Try to include fats like olive and canola oils in your diet, as well as fatty fish like salmon that have heart healthy fats called omega-3s.
  • Boost up on high fiber foods like fruits, veggies, beans and whole grains. Aim for 25 grams of fiber per day.

5. Lack of Regular Physical Activity

An active lifestyle can greatly reduce your risk of heart disease. Try to get at least 30 minutes total of brisk activity every day. Aim to get your activity to the point that you breathe harder than normal while still being able to talk. Think of ways to slip exercise into your daily schedule, take the stairs instead of the elevator, do yard work, wash the car or walk your dog.

6. Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes tends to appear in middle-aged people who are overweight. You can have mild type 2 diabetes for years and not know it. Work with your doctor to lose extra weight, eat right and keep your blood-sugar levels under control.

7. Stress

Everyone has stress but we all feel it in different amounts and react to it in different ways. If you drink, smoke, and eat fatty foods to cope with stress, your risk of heart disease will get worse. It’s better to de-stress with exercise, laugher, and relaxation.


Source: American Heart Association