Risk factors and your heart

There are some things (risk factors) that can increase your chances of developing heart problems. Some are beyond your control, such as your age or family history. But there are others that you can control, called lifestyle risk factors.

  • Diet – Eating too much unhealthy saturated fat or ‘trans fats’ can cause high cholesterol. Too much salt can raise your blood pressure. Both can cause heart disease.
  • Weight – Being overweight can increase your risk of heart problems.
  • Physical activity – Keeping active helps strengthen your heart and lower your blood pressure.
  • Smoking – This can damage the lining of your coronary arteries.
  • High blood pressure (hypertension) – This puts a strain on your heart.
  • Diabetes – High blood sugar levels can damage the walls of the coronary arteries.
  • Family history – You may be more at risk if there is heart disease in your family.
  • Ethnicity – In the UK, people from an African-Caribbean or South Asian ethnic group have a higher risk of developing heart disease.
  • Stress – Extreme stress can affect your heart.

Risk factors

Risk factors are things that can make you more likely to develop heart problems. Some risk factors are beyond your control, such as your age, family history, whether you are male or female, and your ethnicity. But there are many that you can control, and these are known as lifestyle risk factors. These include:

  • smoking
  • being overweight
  • having an unhealthy diet
  • not getting enough exercise
  • having high blood pressure
  • having a high level of cholesterol in your blood
  • having type 2 diabetes.

By controlling these lifestyle risk factors, you can lower your risk of developing coronary heart disease. This will also protect your heart during and after cancer treatment. Even if you already have a heart problem, controlling these risk factors will help your heart.

Lifestyle factors

The information below explains the effects the above risk factors can have on your heart. We have more information about what you can do to reduce your risk and improve your heart health.


Eating too much unhealthy saturated fat (such as fatty meat, butter, lard, ghee, palm oil and coconut oil) and unhealthy ‘trans fats’ (found in foods such as biscuits, cakes, pastries and deep fried foods) can cause high cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a fatty substance that can build up inside the coronary blood vessels. These fat deposits can restrict the flow of blood to the heart muscle and cause coronary heart disease (see our information on heart disease).

Too much salt in your diet can raise your blood pressure and increase the risk of coronary heart disease. Adults shouldn’t have more than about one teaspoon of salt (6g) in a day. There are many foods that contain high levels of salt (more than 1.5mg salt per 100g), so it’s important to check food labels. Snacks such as crisps and nuts, frozen foods such as pizza, takeaway foods such as burgers, and canned foods such as soups, often contain high levels of salt.


If you are overweight, you have a high risk of developing problems such as coronary heart disease and high blood pressure. If you carry fat/weight on your tummy (abdomen) rather than on your bottom or hips and thighs, you are more at risk of coronary heart disease and high blood pressure, even if you are not overweight.

There are two ways of checking whether you are a healthy weight:

1. Body Mass Index (BMI)

BMI is a measure of healthy weight. It’s based on your height and weight. Your GP or practice nurse can work out your BMI for you. Alternatively, a BMI calculator is available on the NHS Choices website.

Weight categoriesBMI ranges
UnderweightBMI less than 18.5
Normal weightBMI 18.5 – 24.9
OverweightBMI 25 – 29.9
ObesityBMI 30 or greater

2. Waist measurement

This is another good guide to your weight. You can measure your waist by placing a tape measure halfway between your lowest rib and the top of your hip bone. A man’s waist should be no larger than 37 inches, and a woman’s no larger than 32 inches. If you are a man of South Asian origin, then it should be no larger than 35.5 inches.

Physical activity

Just as your body needs to be exercised to keep fit, so does your heart. Keeping physically active helps to strengthen the heart muscle and helps lower your blood pressure so that your heart doesn’t have to pump so hard.


This can damage the lining of your coronary arteries and lead to coronary heart disease.

High blood pressure (hypertension)

Persistent high blood pressure strains your heart muscle and causes it to work harder with every heartbeat. Over time, this may cause the heart muscle to stretch and become larger. When this happens, your heart can’t pump as well as before and your risk of heart failure increases.


Diabetes increases the risk of coronary heart disease. This is because high blood sugar levels can damage the walls of the coronary arteries, causing fatty deposits to build up more easily. Diabetes may also cause high blood pressure, which can damage the heart muscle.

Family history of heart problems

You may have an increased risk of heart disease if there is a history of it in your family. This is because you may have inherited faulty genes that increase your risk of certain heart diseases and high cholesterol levels.


In the UK, people from an African-Caribbean or South Asian ethnic group have the highest risk of developing heart disease. This is because they also have an increased risk of developing high blood pressure and diabetes.


Coping with cancer and its treatments can have a huge impact on your emotions and your life. You may experience shock, fear, anger, sadness, loneliness or depression. These feelings may occur at the time of diagnosis, during treatment, or when you’re recovering and adjusting to life after treatment.

If you already have heart problems or you’ve been told that your treatment may have side effects, such as heart problems, this can add to your worries and concerns and can make you feel stressed.

Extreme stress can affect your heart. For some people, smoking, overeating or drinking alcohol are ways of coping with stress. However, they can also increase your risk of developing heart problems. Occasionally, stress may make existing heart symptoms, such as angina, worse.

If you feel stressed, it’s important to tell people close to you and your healthcare professionals. They can support you and suggest ways to help reduce your stress. We have more information about looking after your emotions and coping with stress.

Working together to create information for you

We worked with British Heart Foundation to write our content on heart health.

Thank you to all of the people affected by cancer who reviewed what you're reading and have helped our information to develop.

You could help us too when you join our Cancer Voices Network.

Back to Looking after your heart

The heart

The heart is a large muscle that pumps blood around your body.

Heart problems

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