Visitor info COVID-19 test info COVID-19 vaccine info

Hospital  >  Care Programs  >  Schulich Heart Program  >  Patients and visitors  >  Risk factors for heart disease

Risk factors for heart disease

Risk factors are predictors of heart disease. It is important that you minimize as many risk factors as you can.

There are two types of risk factors, controllable and uncontrollable. Controllable risk factors are those that you can change. Uncontrollable risk factors are those that you cannot change.

Dr. Giuseppe Papia shares how showing your heart a little respect can make a big difference

Controllable risk factors

Smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke

Smoking: smokers are three to five times more likely to have a heart attack than non-smokers. Women who smoke and take oral contraceptives over the age of thirty-five have an additional risk.

Second-hand smoke: the smoke that we breathe when we are with smokers. This smoke is not only smelly and irritating, it is dangerous. In fact, it is more dangerous than the smoke which is inhaled by the smoker.

Smoking/second-hand smoke:

  • increases your heart rate
  • decreases the amount of oxygen in your blood
  • damages the smooth lining of artery walls making it easier for fatty deposits (atherosclerosis) to build up
  • increases narrowing of blood vessels
  • increases mucus in your lungs

When you stop smoking, your risk of heart disease is substantially lowered within the first year. Your risk is reduced to that of a non-smoker in about 5-10 years.

If you would like information about smoking cessation programs, you can call your local lung association. Your family doctor can also provide support by recommending smoking cessation aids which can double your chances of quitting.

View Sunnybrook's interactive eLearning module: tips & strategies for quitting smoking

More tips in our video below:

High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure (hypertension) increases your risk of heart disease by 2-4 times.

High Blood Pressure:

  • makes your heart work harder
  • damages the smooth lining of the arteries making it easier for fatty deposits to build up

High blood pressure may be controlled by weight reduction, decreasing excessive alcohol use, a low salt diet, regular exercise, and taking prescribed medications.

  • stop smoking
  • set aside at least 20 minutes everyday to relax
  • have your doctor or nurse check your blood pressure on your annual visit or more often

Learn more about controlling your blood pressure, especially in the colder months

High cholesterol

High blood cholesterol levels increase the amount of cholesterol deposited within the artery walls. This may cause the blood vessel to narrow. Diet alone may not improve your cholesterol levels. Family history can play a role in determining how effectively your levels may be controlled.

Cholesterol levels may be partially controlled by the type and amount of food eaten. Aggressive management of cholesterol levels with cholesterol lowering medications is common practice.

Lack of regular exercise

Exercise on a regular basis may reduce your risk of having a heart attack.


  • Increases blood circulation to your heart muscle
  • Increases the strength of your heart muscle
  • Lowers your blood pressure
  • Lowers blood sugar, cholesterol, and weight
  • Relieves stress
  • Promotes a general feeling of well being

Regular exercise can be as easy as a 20 minute brisk walk three times a week.


If you are more than 30 lbs. overweight, you are at higher risk of heart disease. Shape is also an important factor. Excess weight around your middle (waist and abdomen) puts you at even greater risk than if you are generally overweight.


  • Increases your blood pressure
  • Increases your blood cholesterol & triglycerides
  • Increases the workload of your heart
  • Makes blood sugar more difficult to control

It's never too late to make a change for the best. Balancing your eating habits with proper exercise may help you achieve a more healthy weight.

Enjoying balanced meals with a variety of low fat, high fibre, and low sodium foods can help to reduce some of your risk factors and provide good nutrition for your heart.

General tips for heart healthy eating:

  • Emphasize whole grain cereals, breads, and other whole grain products
  • Choose colourful, high fibre vegetables and fruits
  • Choose lean meats, low fat dairy products, and foods prepared with little or no fat
  • Limit salt and sugar
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine

A registered dietitian is available in the hospital to provide additional information on heart healthy eating


Difficulty coping with stress may increase your risk of having a heart attack.

Try to recognize stressful situations and learn effective ways of managing them. This may reduce the harmful effects stress may have on your body.

For some people, formal or informal counseling may be helpful to learn to manage stress.


Diabetes is a disease in which the body cannot process sugar properly.

People with poorly controlled diabetes have an increased risk for heart disease, since diabetes:

  • Promotes plaque formation when blood sugars remain high
  • Increases your blood triglycerides

Controlling your blood sugar by eating properly and taking prescribed medications may help to reduce your risk.


Uncontrollable risk factors

Although the three risk factors below cannot be changed, modifying your other risk factors may lower your chance of developing heart disease. Should you suffer a heart attack, risk factor modification may also improve your recovery.

Working on one risk factor at a time will increase your chance of success.

Heredity (family history)

People with a family history of early (less than fifty five years of age) heart attack, angina or stroke are at increased risk of developing heart disease.


The older people are, the greater the risk of having a heart attack.


Coronary artery disease is more common in men than women.

Generally men show the effects of coronary artery disease ten years earlier than women. This is due to the protection that estrogen gives women before menopause. When women reach menopause, estrogen decreases and the risk of coronary artery disease increases.

The structure and function of the heart is the same in both women and men except that the heart and coronary arteries of women are smaller. Physical differences such as hormones and body size may account for differences in how heart disease is experienced and treated in women.