October 22, 2019/Heart Health

How to Protect Yourself Against Heart and Vascular Disease

Take steps to modify risk factors as you age

illustration of Fit woman displaying heart health

Read any article on cardiovascular disease prevention, and you’ll learn that the major risk factors are age, sex, race, smoking, high blood pressure, high blood lipid levels, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

But have you ever wondered if each risk factor influences risk to the same degree? The answer is no. All cardiovascular disease risk factors aren’t created equal.

“More than half — almost three quarters — of cardiovascular disease risk is determined by age, sex and race,” says preventive cardiologist Luke Laffin, MD. “The other risk factors add some prognostic value, but not as much as you’d think.”

Cardiovascular disease risk grows with age

Smoking, high blood pressure, high blood lipid levels, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are known as modifiable risk factors. Their impact on the heart can be reduced by making certain lifestyle adjustments or taking specific medications.

Age, sex and race are known as non-modifiable risk factors. They can’t be changed. Of the three, aging has the biggest impact on cardiovascular disease risk. Your risk of suffering a cardiac event increases as you age.

“That’s the reason the risk calculators we use show older patients are at elevated risk of cardiovascular disease, even if all other risk factors are under control,” Dr. Laffin explains. “Risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol tend to enhance risk, but they don’t play as big a role as aging itself.”

Weighing your risk

The impact of four key modifiable risk factors on cardiovascular disease was the subject of a recent study in Circulation.

Researchers evaluated the contributions of high blood lipid levels, high systolic blood pressure (SBP), diabetes and smoking on the development of coronary artery disease events overall and by age on more than 22,600 cardiovascular disease-free adults ages 45 to 84 participating in four National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute-sponsored studies.

The findings were somewhat surprising: “The study showed some risk factors are more important than others,” says Dr. Laffin.

Individually, each risk factor had less of an impact on the ability to predict a heart attack or other cardiovascular event as the participants grew older. However, high SBP and high cholesterol were so prevalent that their contribution could not be overlooked. The researchers determined that if every participant had lowered their SBP to normal and their LDL cholesterol by 30%, the number of heart attacks would have dropped substantially.

What this means for you

If you have multiple cardiovascular disease risk factors when you are younger, they are more powerful at predicting you’ll have a cardiovascular event than if you develop them when you are older.

“Having high SBP will increase your risk as you age, but not to the same degree as SBP in someone much younger,” says Dr. Laffin. This does not downplay the importance of major risk factors at any age.

“All risk factors for cardiovascular disease are important. If you have any of them, they are definitely going to increase your risk,” he says. Because you can’t roll back your age, you would be wise to do everything you can to lower your cardiovascular disease risk as you grow older. This means:

Advertisement

“Cardiovascular disease risk is going to increase no matter what you do, so you have to control the modifiable risk factors as much as possible,” says Dr. Laffin.

This article originally appeared in Cleveland Clinic Heart Advisor.

Advertisement

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Hand holding cellphone with walking app, with feet walking and footprints
May 17, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
Should You Aim To Walk 10,000 Steps a Day?

Walking is a great goal, but how many steps are best for you depends on factors like your fitness level and age

Person taking heart health quiz on a clipboard
February 26, 2024/Heart Health
How Healthy Is Your Heart? Take This Quiz To Find Out

Age, sex and genetics are just a few factors that can affect your risk of developing coronary heart disease

Person holding a handful of fish oil capsules after pouring them from a pill bottle.
January 10, 2023/Heart Health
Fish Oil Pills Aren’t Doing What You Think They’re Doing

OTC options are unhelpful at best, while some prescriptions can raise your arrhythmia risk

A person stands in a brightly lit room and performs a one-legged, standing yoga pose.
November 4, 2021/Heart Health
What To Do After a Heart Attack

Here’s what to do and how to heal after you’ve had a heart attack

A person working out on a treadmill in their home
February 14, 2021/Heart Health
How to Get the Best Cardiovascular Workout on a Treadmill

Tips to help you improve your cardiovascular fitness

Air purifier in cozy white bedroom
October 28, 2020/Lung
Can Air Purifiers Improve Your Lung and Heart Health?

Benefits may go beyond breathing

Person reclining on couch wearing compression socks
April 3, 2024/Heart Health
How To Raise Your Blood Pressure Immediately at Home

First things first — slowly sit or lie down

Older couple talk while leisurely walk across a bridge
February 29, 2024/Heart Health
Can You Exercise After a Heart Attack?

Absolutely! In fact, in many ways, exercise is key to recovery

Trending Topics

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

woman snacking on raisins and nuts
52 Foods High In Iron

Pump up your iron intake with foods like tuna, tofu and turkey

Ad