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Your lifestyle matters because it affects many of the “risk factors” for heart disease. Risk factors are conditions or habits that increase the chances of developing a disease or having it worsen. There are two types of heart disease risk factors—those you can’t change and those you can control. One risk factor that cannot be changed is a family history of early heart disease. Also, for women, age becomes a risk factor at 55. That’s because, after menopause, women are more apt to get heart disease. In part, this occurs because a woman’s production of estrogen drops. Also, middle age is a time when women tend to develop other risk factors for heart disease. But many heart disease risk factors can be controlled by making changes in your lifestyle and, in some cases, by taking medication. (For more on how to reduce risk factors, see the information section “Taking Action to Lower Your Heart Disease Risk”).

Risk factors that you can control include:

Smoking. Cigarette smoking greatly increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as lung cancer and other serious diseases. There is simply no safe way to smoke. But the rewards of quitting are enormous. Just 1 year after you stop smoking, your heart disease risk will drop by more than half.

High Blood Pressure. High blood pressure can lead to heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, and kidney disease. Usually, blood pressure is expressed as two numbers, such as 120/80 mmHg (millimeters of mercury). Blood pressure is considered “high” when it is 140/90 or above. But even pre-hypertension (120-139 over 80-89) raises your risk of heart disease.

High Blood Cholesterol. Cholesterol travels in the blood in packages called lipoproteins. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is often called “bad” cholesterol because too much LDL in your blood can lead to blockages in the arteries—and a possible heart attack. The higher your LDL number, the higher your risk of heart disease. (An LDL level of 160* or above is high; less than 100 is optimal.) Another type of cholesterol is high density lipoprotein (HDL), also known as “good” cholesterol. That’s because HDL helps remove cholesterol from your blood. (An HDL level of less than 40 increases your risk for heart disease; 60 or higher is protective.) Another key number is your total cholesterol, which should be less than 200.

*Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) of blood.

Overweight/Obesity. If you are overweight or obese, you are more likely to develop heart disease, even if you have no other risk factors. Overweight also increases the risks for stroke, congestive heart failure, gallbladder disease, diabetes, arthritis, and breathing problems, as well as breast, colon, and other cancers.

Physical Inactivity. Not getting regular physical activity increases your risk for heart disease, as well as other heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and overweight. And, for older women especially, physical inactivity increases the chances of developing osteoporosis, which in turn raises the risk of broken bones.

Diabetes. Diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, and other diseases. The type of diabetes that adults most commonly develop is “type 2.” You are more likely to develop this disease if you are overweight (especially with extra weight around your middle), physically inactive, or have a family history of diabetes. Diabetes can be detected with a blood sugar test.