What Are the Risk Factors for Heart Disease? The Silent & Visible Threats

There’s a reason high blood pressure is considered “the silent killer”— it’s one of those sneaky symptoms that can contribute to heart disease. Fortunately, keeping an eye on both noticeable and not-so-obvious signs can make a difference in catching risk factors.

If you’re wondering how susceptible you are to heart disease, you aren’t alone. Many seniors worry about their level of risk, and are curious how both modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors for heart disease play into the big picture. 

Fortunately, many older adults can reduce their disease risk by managing modifiable risk factors for heart disease. Read on for answers to common questions, including “What are the risk factors for heart disease?” Let’s dive right in! 

What Is Heart Disease?

Heart disease is a sort of umbrella term, catch-all phrase, or overarching category that refers to many types of heart conditions. Each condition in this category affects the heart’s physical structure and how it works, including how efficiently it can pump oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. 

The most common of these conditions is coronary heart disease (CHD), which is also known as coronary artery disease (CAD). Other conditions, like heart attacks and strokes, are also included in heart disease. Some symptoms of these diseases, like angina (chest pain), can come on slowly. Other symptoms, like blood clots that cause heart attacks, occur suddenly.

Overall, heart disease is the leading cause of death among Americans, affecting millions of U.S. adults. Understandably, many seniors start to evaluate their heart disease risk as they get older. 

What Are the Risk Factors for Heart Disease?

Disease risk factors are characteristics associated with a certain health condition linked with a greater likelihood of developing that disease. For example, a commonly measured risk factor for heart disease is high blood pressure. 

Some risk factors, like genes, can’t be controlled and are called non-modifiable risk factors. However, other risk factors are modifiable—namely, lifestyle factors like diet and exercise can help protect the heart from health threats. Since heart disease can have more than one cause, it’s important to evaluate modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors. 

Non-Modifiable Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Wondering how factors like age affect your risk for heart disease? Here are non-modifiable factors to be aware of. 


Unfortunately, being older in age puts you at higher risk for heart disease. This is mainly because cholesterol and fat deposits (plaque) can build up in the blood vessels each year as you age.

Additionally, structural changes to the small blood vessels of the heart occur during the aging process and can raise your risk for a specific type of heart disease called coronary microvascular disease. Arteries may also start to harden or stiffen with age, referred to as arteriosclerosis.

Other structural changes are also possible, like the stiffening or thickening of valves and chambers, which are the “doors” and “rooms” that your heart houses. Like a house, your heart also has an electrical system that sends signals. These signals can become too fast, too slow, or irregular as you age, a condition called arrhythmias.

Generally, your heart muscle tends to tire a bit with age, meaning it may not beat as fast as it used to during activities like exercise or stressful situations.


Interestingly, men experience a higher risk for heart disease. Although CHD risk begins to rise around 45 years old, many healthcare systems suggest screening for high cholesterol as early as 18 to 35 years old and repeating this screening at least every five years.

For women, heart disease risk increases following menopause (around age 55). This is attributed to the fact that estrogen, which is thought to reduce the risk of heart disease, decreases in a woman’s body after menopause. 

Genes & Family History 

A family history of heart disease (especially early onset, before age 50) is another risk factor to be aware of. Studies show that men with fathers or brothers diagnosed before 55 years old and women who have a sister or mother diagnosed before 65 years old may be more likely to experience a cardiac event. 

Researchers are also continuing to find evidence that some genes are linked with a higher risk for heart disease. However, genetic screening isn’t typically part of mainstream medical practice and may not be affordable for many people. Luckily, just because your genes predispose you to heart disease doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to develop heart disease

Modifiable Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Curious about activities, behaviors, or habits you’re doing that may be increasing the risk for heart disease? Continue reading to discover which practices you may want to limit or avoid. 

High “ABC” Markers 

There are three markers, or signs of a health condition that can be tested from your blood, associated with an increased risk of heart disease. You’ve likely heard of them, and they can be easily recalled by remembering your “ABCs”: 

  • A1C: High A1C can indicate elevated blood sugar, which may indicate prediabetes or diabetes, which can consequently raise your risk for heart disease
  • Blood Pressure: High blood pressure stresses the body’s blood vessels and can cause the heart to work harder to pump blood throughout the body 
  • Cholesterol: High cholesterol can cause fatty deposits to build up in the blood vessels over time, ultimately increasing the likelihood of high blood pressure and heart disease

Your doctor may measure a specific type of cholesterol called low-density lipoprotein, which is commonly referred to as LDL cholesterol or “bad” cholesterol. This type of cholesterol makes up the majority of the body’s cholesterol. 

Since cholesterol buildup is a common cause of CAD, it’s crucial to keep cholesterol levels within normal range so that both large arteries and small heart vessels don’t become blocked. 

Related Health Conditions 

Some preventable or delayable diseases, like type 2 diabetes, are linked with increasing heart disease risk. If you have diabetes, keeping your diabetes under control may be a key part of managing your level of risk. 

Chronic inflammation can also play a role in heart disease risk. Inflammation that goes untreated can cause damage or injury to artery walls over time. 

Diet & Exercise 

How you eat also decreases or increases your risk for heart disease. Notably, a diet high in saturated fat can contribute to high cholesterol and blood pressure. A diet high in refined carbohydrates (carbs) and sugar can also raise blood sugar beyond normal.  

Habits related to diet, like smoking and drinking, can increase your risk for heart disease, too. Smoking, in particular, causes damage to heart and blood vessels. This damage makes you more prone to developing stiff or blocked arteries. 

A factor that goes hand-in-hand with diet is exercise. A lack of physical activity can worsen overall health, related conditions, and other risk factors, such as: 

  • Blood pressure 
  • Cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity 
  • Triglycerides

Sleep & Stress 

Other lifestyle factors, such as sleep and stress, also play a role. Not getting enough quality sleep (at least 7-8 hours), frequently waking at night, or suffering from sleep disorders (like sleep apnea) can also increase your risk. 

Interestingly, this is related to the fact that your heart rate and blood pressure drop when you sleep well. So, try giving your heart a rest from the hard work it does during waking hours. 

Mental stress and distress can also start to stress the body. Chronic stress can elevate blood pressure, cause blood vessels to tighten, and may cause you to (quite literally) lose sleep. Lack of sleep can also prompt you to eat more fatty or sugary foods than usual, or may make you more prone to overeating. 

Environmental Factors 

Some miscellaneous environmental factors, like air pollution, may also contribute to your risk for heart disease. It’s essential to consider what you do (or used to do) for work since your occupation may make you more likely to develop heart disease. This is particularly true of jobs that expose you to hazards, such as:

  • Toxins
  • Radiation
  • Secondhand smoke 

Your work environment may also cause unnecessary stress, increasing your heart disease risk. This is especially true of jobs that require the following: 

  • Long shifts
  • Sitting for long periods of time 
  • Night shifts 

Can Heart Disease Be Prevented? 

The good news? Most individuals who follow a heart-healthy lifestyle can significantly reduce their disease risk. Remember that often a combination of approaches is used to create a treatment plan. 

Maintain a Healthy Weight  

If you’re overweight or obese, losing a healthy amount of weight can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease, as well as related health conditions (like diabetes). If you’re already within a healthy weight range, it’s important to maintain a healthy weight. 

Eat Heart-Healthy Foods 

A heart-healthy diet can be a crucial turning point in reducing disease risk. It can also be key to balancing blood sugar levels, especially if you have type 2 diabetes. Some top diet tips for managing heart disease risk include: 

  • Reduce sodium: seniors often become more sensitive to salt with age
  • Increase fruits and vegetables: fruits and veggies are nutrient-rich powerhouses containing vitamins and minerals your heart needs to stay healthy
  • Make half your grains whole: whole grains contain fiber, a nutrient vital to heart health that many seniors don’t get enough of
  • Opt for healthy fats: healthy fats can increase your levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which is considered the “good” cholesterol that takes cholesterol out of the blood

Short on time or energy? Don’t forget meal delivery plans like Silver Cuisine’s heart-healthy specialty diet make eating for heart health delicious, nutritious, and convenient. 

Stay Physically Fit with Enjoyable Exercise

Staying physically fit is about more than outward appearance. Exercise also benefits your heart, such as improving its function and reducing related risk factors. It’s been shown to reduce heart attack and diabetes risk and (as a byproduct) may improve your mental health and quality of life. Conditioning your heart with daily movement may also make routine tasks, like walking up the stairs or going grocery shopping, easier.

Medications and Surgery 

In some cases, medicine may be recommended by your doctor to help manage heart disease risk. Some medications are designed to be used until your health markers return to a normal range, while others may need to be continued for the rest of your life. 

In more serious situations, surgery may also be recommended to help heal specific parts of the heart. 

Wrapping Up Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Even though some risk factors for heart disease can’t be avoided, some lifestyle habits can be altered to better protect your heart. If looking into your family history or food patterns seems overwhelming, remember that your doctor or dietitian may be able to help you assess your personal level of risk. 


Simple tips—like remembering your “ABCs” (A1C, blood pressure, and cholesterol)—can also make managing your heart care easier. 


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart Disease. Cdc.gov. Published April 2023. 

Hajar R. Genetics in Cardiovascular Disease. Genetics in Cardiovascular Disease. Heart Views. 2020;21(1):55-56.  

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Coronary Heart Disease Causes and Risk Factors. Nhlbi.nih.gov. Published March 2022. 

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How Smoking Affects the Heart and Blood Vessels. Nhlbi.nih.gov. Published March 2022.  

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Physical Activity and Your Heart Benefits. Nhlbi.nih.gov. Published March 2022. 

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What Is Coronary Heart Disease? Nhlbi.nih.gov. Published March 2022.  

National Institute on Aging. Heart Health and Aging. Nia.nih.gov. Published June 2018.