What are the CHD risk factors I can control?

By: Elizabeth Scherer

You can control many of the risk factors for coronary heart disease, including:

  • smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke
  • physical inactivity
  • obesity
  • high blood cholesterol
  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • stress and unhealthy responses to it
  • taking some types of recreational drugs
  • drinking too much alcohol

Work with your doctor to find ways to control these risk factors. That will reduce the risks CHD poses for you.



A smoker's risk for CHD is double that of a nonsmoker's. The American Heart Association calls smoking the "single most preventable cause of death" in the United States. Smoking clogs arteries by damaging artery walls, allowing cholesterol to be deposited more easily. Here is some of the damage smoking causes.

  • It may reduce blood levels of HDL, the good cholesterol, by as much as 15%.
  • It makes your platelets stickier. This means it takes less time for your blood to clot, which can lead to heart attacks.
  • It multiplies the effect of other risk factors. If you've experienced chest pain, called angina, smoking is particularly dangerous.
  • It is particularly dangerous for you to smoke if you have ever had a heart attack. The nicotine in tobacco can interfere with your heart's normal rhythm and lead to sudden cardiac death.

Exposure to secondhand smoke. Even if you don't smoke, being exposed to others' smoke increases your risk for heart disease. This includes living with someone who smokes.


Physical Inactivity and Obesity

Physical inactivity. The American Heart Association says that lack of physical activity is as important a risk factor for heart disease as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. Health experts also say regular exercise reduces the risk for other diseases, such as high blood pressure, which can contribute to strokes. In addition to helping you control blood cholesterol, regular exercise can help prevent or control obesity and diabetes. Both of these are risk factors for heart disease.

Obesity. If you are overweight, you are at increased risk for heart disease. This is true even if you have no other risk factors. Being overweight can do the following:


  • put a strain on your heart
  • raise your blood pressure
  • raise your level of LDL, known as bad cholesterol
  • lower your level of HDL, known as good cholesterol

Obesity can also make you more likely to develop diabetes, a major risk factor for heart disease and a number of other serious health problems.


Cholesterol and Diabetes

High blood cholesterol. High blood cholesterol is a major risk factor for atherosclerosis, the artery-clogging process that causes CHD. If you have a family history of heart disease or high cholesterol, your children are at greater risk for CHD and high cholesterol, too. They should have their cholesterol checked. Parents of children with high cholesterol should work closely with the doctor to lower it.

Diabetes. Untreated diabetes can lead to serious health problems, including CHD. One reason for this is that people with diabetes often have high triglycerides and low HDL. Here are some of the problems it may cause.


  • Many people with diabetes develop heart or peripheral vascular disease. And they often die from it. So it is very important that you keep your blood glucose as close to normal as possible.
  • Diabetes puts you at increased risk for high blood pressure. This is another major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

If you have diabetes, see your doctor regularly.


High Blood Pressure and Stress

High blood pressure. Having high blood pressure causes your heart to work harder than it should. Here are some of the problems high blood pressure may cause.

  • Over time, it can enlarge your heart and make your heart unable to pump enough blood to all parts of your body.
  • It strains the arteries, which damages the artery walls. This damage puts your arteries at risk for the buildup of plaque that causes atherosclerosis.
  • It may contribute to heart attacks, strokes, eye disease called retinopathy, and kidney failure.

If you don't know your blood pressure, have it tested. Work with your doctor to keep it in a healthy range.


Stress and unhealthy responses to it. Some health experts believe that too much stress over time may cause health problems. Unhealthy responses to long-term stress may also cause health problems. These problems may include heart disease. Unhealthy responses to stress may include smoking, overeating, and using drugs or alcohol. It's hard to measure your response to stress. If you think you may need help dealing with stress in healthier ways, ask your doctor for guidance.


Drugs and Alcohol

Taking some types of recreational drugs, including cocaine and anabolic steroids. Drug abuse puts you at high risk for stroke, heart attack, and blood vessel problems. If you use recreational drugs, talk with your doctor about getting help to quit immediately.

Drinking too much alcohol. Moderate drinking has been associated with a decreased risk for CHD. Moderate drinking is defined as two drinks per day for men, one drink per day for women. However, drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure. That can cause heart failure and lead to stroke. Excessive alcohol can increase triglycerides, a type of blood fat associated with high cholesterol levels. It also contributes to certain types of cancer, obesity, and all types of traffic and household accidents. If you don't drink, don't start. Pregnant women should not drink any alcohol. If you are a woman who drinks more than one drink per day or a man who drinks more than two drinks per day, talk with your doctor about getting help to reduce your use of alcohol.


Lots More Information

Related Articles