Risk factors for heart problems

Risk factors are things that can make you more likely to develop certain heart problems.

There are some risk factors that you cannot change. For example, you may be more likely to develop heart problems because of your:

  • age
  • gender
  • ethnic background
  • family history of heart problems.

There are other risk factors you can control by changing your lifestyle or with medicines from your doctor. These include:

  • smoking
  • being overweight or carrying more weight around your waist
  • spending more time sitting or being inactive
  • high blood pressure
  • high levels of cholesterol in your blood
  • diabetes.

If you are worried about any of these risk factors, talk to your GP or nurse. They can give you information about your risk of future heart problems and advice about reducing this risk.

What are risk factors for heart problems?

Risk factors are things that can make you more likely to develop certain heart problems. If you are worried about any of these risk factors, talk to your GP or nurse. They can give you information about your risk of future heart problems and advice about reducing this risk. You can also find out more about reducing your risk and check your heart age on the British Heart Foundation website.


Risk factors you can’t control

There are some risk factors that you cannot change.


Age

As your body gets older, you are more likely to develop coronary heart disease (CHD) or have a heart attack.

Gender

Men are more likely to develop CHD at an earlier age than women. CHD can lead to a heart attack.

Family history

Some heart problems can run in families. You may have a higher risk if your parents, brothers or sisters have had heart problems, high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels. 

Ethnicity

If you live in the UK and are from a South Asian background, you may have a higher risk of developing CHD. CHD can lead to a heart attack. You are also more likely to have diabetes, which is another risk factor for heart problems.

If you are from an African Caribbean background, you are more likely to have risk factors such as high blood pressure or diabetes.


Risk factors you can control

There are some risk factors that you can control by changing your lifestyle or with medicines from your doctor. This lowers your chance of developing CHD or of having a heart attack. Even if you already have a heart problem, you can help your heart by controlling these factors.


Smoking

Smoking increases your risk of CHD or a heart attack:

  • It damages the lining of your coronary arteries, which can lead to CHD.
  • It makes your heart beat faster and work harder.
  • It reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood. This means your heart has to work harder to supply the body with enough oxygen.
  • It makes your blood more likely to clot, which increases your risk of a heart attack.

Weight and body shape

If you are overweight or carry more weight around your waist, you have a higher risk of developing CHD. You are also more likely to develop conditions that can cause heart problems, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

You can check whether you are a healthy weight and body shape in two ways.

Body Mass Index (BMI)

BMI is a measure of whether your weight is healthy for your height. The table below shows how BMI can be used to work out if you are underweight, a healthy weight or overweight.

Your GP or practice nurse can work out your BMI for you. Or you can check it online using a BMI calculator.

BMIWeight
Less than 18.5Underweight
18.5 to 24.9Healthy weight
25 to 29.9Overweight
30 or moreVery overweight


Waist measurement

Whatever your height or weight, having too much fat around the middle of your body increases your risk of heart problems. You can measure your waist by placing a tape measure halfway between your lowest rib and the top of your hip bone. For most people, halfway will be at their tummy button.

A woman’s waist should measure less than 80 cm (31.5 inches). A man’s waist should be less than 94 cm (37 inches). Men from some ethnic groups should aim for a smaller waist measuring less than 90 cm (35.5 inches). This includes South Asian, African-Caribbean, Black African, Chinese, Middle Eastern men, or men who have parents from two or more different ethnic groups.

Physical activity

People who spend more time sitting or being inactive have a higher risk of developing CHD, high blood pressure and diabetes.

High blood pressure

Blood pressure measures the pressure of your blood as your heart pumps it out to your body. If the pressure is higher, your heart has to work harder to pump the blood. Over time, high blood pressure can damage the heart muscle and cause heart failure. It can also increase your risk of having a heart attack.

You can improve your blood pressure by:

  • being more physically active
  • losing weight
  • reducing the salt in your diet
  • drinking less than 14 units or alcohol each week
  • not drinking for several days each week.

Your doctor may also give you medicines to help control your blood pressure.

High cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in the blood. If there is too much cholesterol, fatty material can build up in the artery walls. This can increase the risk of CHD and heart attack. 

You can improve your cholesterol level by eating a healthy diet and choosing unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats. It can also help to stop smoking, be more physically active and drink less alcohol.

Your doctor may also give you medicines to lower your cholesterol levels.

Diabetes

Diabetes is a condition where the level of sugar in the blood is too high. There are two main types: 

  • Type 1 diabetes is rare. It is more common in children or young adults. This type of diabetes is not related to diet or lifestyle. It is treated with insulin by injection or through a pump.
  • Type 2 diabetes is more common and usually affects adults over the age of 40. This type is much more likely if you are overweight or physically inactive. It is treated with a healthy diet and physical activity. Tablets and insulin are also used to help manage it.

Over time, diabetes can damage the heart and blood vessels. This can increase the risk of high blood pressure and coronary heart disease.

If you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, keeping your blood sugar under control will help reduce your risk of heart problems. Your doctor or nurse can give you more advice about this.

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Back to Looking after your heart

Heart problems

Different types of heart problem can develop if part of the heart is not working properly.

Warning signs of heart problems

If you have any warning signs of heart problems, tell your doctor straight away. Early treatment can prevent further damage.