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Heart disease risk factors include hereditary and other risk factors can help you complete your risk picture. While some of these factors are not modifiable, it's important to learn which ones apply to you.

Age and Sex

Heart disease is an equal opportunity killer. Nearly half of all heart attack victims are women, and a woman is 7.5 times more likely to die of a heart attack or stroke than breast or lung cancer. A woman's risk increase if she's had a hysterectomy or her ovaries removed, she is more than seven years beyond menopause, or she is on birth control pills while being regularly exposed to smoking.

Men tend to have heart attacks earlier in life and are more likely to survive them. Within the first year following a heart attack, 39 percent of women die compared to 31 percent of men. African-American women have a 28 percent higher heart disease death rate than white women. After menopause, a woman's risk of heart attack rises steadily.

Because the buildup of fatty deposits continues throughout life, the risk of coronary artery disease and heart attack increases with age for both sexes. Eighty percent of heart attack deaths occur after age 65. Developing healthy lifestyle habits early helps minimize risk later in life.


Family history definitely plays a role in heart disease. When parents or siblings develop coronary artery disease before age 55 in males or before age 65 in females, the risk of developing heart disease early in life doubles. How much is influenced by heredity and how much by lifestyle habits is still unknown. Genetic factors may be present without heart disease developing.

When lifestyle factors such as smoking are added to a genetically susceptible individual, the result is the development of cardiovascular disease. A family may also have patterns that dramatically increase risk such as smoking, obesity, high-fat diets, and sedentary lifestyles. A true genetic component causing very elevated cholesterol levels can be linked with some pronounced, accelerated forms of arteriosclerosis.

Prior Medical History

Anyone with a prior history of vascular disease is at a higher risk of developing coronary artery disease and stroke. This includes a history of:

  • Angina
  • Angioplasty or stent
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Carotid atery disease (the arteries in the neck)
  • Heart attack
  • High red blood cell count
  • Peripheral vascular disease (blockages in the abdominal aorta or arteries in the legs)
  • Sickle-cell anemia
  • Stroke
  • TIA ("mini-stroke")

Diabetes increases the risk of developing vascular disease. All diabetics should adhere to the more stringent guidelines that are recommended for those with a prior history of vascular disease.

Metabolic Syndrome

Even mild cardiovascular risk factors, when in combination with other abnormalities, can increase one's risk of developing heart disease. The Metabolic Syndrome is a combination of:

  • Abdominal Obesity (waist circumference more than 35" in women, 40" in men)
  • Elevated blood glucose (over 100)
  • Elevated blood pressure (higher than 130/85)
  • Elevated triglycerides (more than 150)
  • Low HDL (less than 50 for women, 40 for men)

Any 3 of the above risk factors together increase the chances for cardiovascular disease and/or diabetes. Exercise, improved diet, and weight loss are crucial for reversing the Metabolic Syndrome.

Other Emerging Risk Factors

New information about risk factors is constantly emerging through research. There is evidence that several other factors involving cholesterol (lipid) makeup influence cardiac risk. Current studies will help us understand the effects of female hormones on cardiac risk and whether using medication to raise HDL cholesterol reduces risk. The availability of information from numerous sources makes it imperative to be a discerning consumer.

C-Reactive Protein (CRP)

Studies of healthy men and women have shown that those with elevated C-Reactive Protein (CRP) levels have an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. CRP blood levels are not routinely measured. Measuring CRP can identify people at high risk. Aspirin and statin drugs may exert an anti-inflammatory effect and may lower CRP levels.