Cancer, accident, lung or kidney disease, Alzheimers . . . all of these things fall in the top 10 list of leading causes of death in the U.S., but what snags the number one spot for both men and women? Heart disease. An estimated 1 out of 4 people die from heart disease every year, and for many, it is largely preventable. Don’t miss these top risk factors for developing heart disease and what you can do about them:

High Blood Pressure

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, affects roughly one out of three Americans and is a leading cause of heart disease. Blood pressure is the force at which your body pumps blood from your heart throughout your vascular system. High blood pressure equates too much of this force which in turn stresses your arteries and heart, leads to faster wear and tear, damage, and potentially creates pockets for plaque to build up.

Understanding blood pressure by age, what are healthy levels and what are unhealthy levels, can equip people with the tools they need to take action. High blood pressure can largely be addressed with a balanced diet, reduction in sodium consumption, and increase in activity levels.

High Cholesterol

Did you know that your body naturally produces cholesterol? Cholesterol is an essential player in many bodily processes including building cell membranes and producing Vitamin D, hormones, and bile acids that help break down fat. Harvard Medical School shares that in fact, your liver and intestines produce 80% of the cholesterol your body needs for those functions.

Over-consumption of high cholesterol foods can lead to buildup of too much cholesterol in the blood stream. Over time, waxy plaques can form on artery walls making it harder for blood to get through and potentially leading to heart attacks, stroke, and other heart disease related symptoms. Eating heart healthy fats, fiber, and cutting back on the number of high-cholesterol foods you consume can help keep arteries clear and strong.


Smoking not only increases your chances of developing lung problems and cancer down the line, but it is a leading cause of heart disease. Why? Smoking increases blood pressure levels, makes your blood more likely to clot, and has been shown to reduce good cholesterol levels in the bloodstream. Not only that, but smoking negatively impacts activity levels and can make it harder to exercise.

Smoking is the greatest risk factor for people under the age of 50 according to the American Heart Association, and when combined with a family history of heart disease, or for women especially, the use of oral contraceptives, that risk level is multiplied. Quitting smoking isn’t easy, but over the counter aids like patches and gum, and free smoking cessation counseling at a nearby health care institution may be available to you.


Almost 70% of adults over 65 with diabetes will die from heart disease. Type 2 Diabetes in particular which occurs when the body stops producing insulin or becomes insulin resistant develops from a handful of factors which are also linked to heart disease. These include hypertension, unhealthy levels of bad cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood stream, obesity, and poor rates of physical activity.

While diabetes is treatable with pharmacological and even surgical intervention, the severity of Type 2 symptoms can be lessened with modified diet and exercise levels. A healthy diet that controls sugar and carbohydrate intake combined with routine fitness (at least 30 minutes a day of moderate-intensity activity) can help lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol levels, and even help you lose weight.


The measure of body fat you have based on your height and weight is called your body mass index, or BMI. A BMI over 30 is considered ‘obese’ according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and an estimated 70% of Americans are either overweight or obese. How does this contribute to heart disease? Being overweight not only makes it that much tougher to exercise and stay active, but it hinders your body’s ability to circulate blood, increases cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and makes you more likely to develop diabetes.

Medically-supervised weight loss programs, thoughtful exercise programs, and smart modifications to a diet that incorporate more whole grains, vegetables, fruits, lean meats, and healthy fats are all a good way to address issues of being overweight or obese. Even losing a few pounds can have an impact on your overall heart health and get you on the road to reducing risk of developing heart disease.