Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center - Health Library

Risk Factors for Heart Attack

A risk factor is something that increases your likelihood of getting a disease or condition.

It is possible to have a heart attack with or without the risk factors listed below. However, the more risk factors you have, the greater your likelihood of having a heart attack. If you have a number of risk factors, ask your doctor what you can do to reduce your risk.

Factors That Can Be Modified or Managed


Smoking is a major contributing factor to cardiovascular disorders that can lead to a heart attack. Smoking irritates and narrows blood vessels, contributes to the build up of arterial plaque, and raises heart rate and blood pressure. As a result, cigarette smokers are twice as likely as nonsmokers to have a heart attack, and are more likely to die from a heart attack than nonsmokers. People who continue to smoke in the presence of established cardiovascular disease are at increased risk for repeated heart attacks and sudden cardiac arrest.

Nonsmokers who are exposed to smoking are at risk as well.

Physical Inactivity

Physical inactivity doubles your risk for a heart attack or stroke. People who are usually inactive and then suddenly increase their physical activity are also at risk for having a heart attack. Talk to your doctor before you start any exercise program and gradually increase your intensity.

Regular moderate to intense exercise improves heart function and promotes healthy arteries. It also helps reduce the chance of other heart attack risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

Excessive Alcohol Intake

Drinking too much alcohol can increase blood pressure, blood triglycerides that contribute to plaque build-up, and increase the risk of abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias). Drinking too much alcohol can increase blood pressure and lead to other heart problems.

There is some evidence supporting that moderate drinking lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease. Moderate means a maximum of 1 drink per day for women or 2 drinks per day for men.

It is important to remember however, that moderate ingestion of alcohol can affect your overall health. Based on currently available data, taking up regular consumption of alcohol is not encouraged for people who do not drink or drink sporadically.

Medications and Drug Use

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are commonly used to relieve pain, inflammation, or fever. Risk of a heart attack increases within the first week of regular NSAID use and with the amount taken. If you need NSAIDs, talk to your doctor about other options.

Illicit drug use, especially cocaine, can cause heart damage from abnormal heart rhythms, infection, or heart failure. Heart attacks are more likely in people with cardiovascular damage. Drug users also have an increased risk of dying from sudden cardiac arrest.

Testosterone Therapy

Men aged 65 years and older who are taking testosterone therapy are more likely to have a heart attack. Testosterone therapy has been used to treat conditions like erectile dysfunction. Talk to your doctor about your risk of heart attack if you are taking testosterone therapy medications.

Chronic Health Conditions

High Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is crucial to many body processes. The body produces and uses what it needs, but cholesterol also comes from your diet. High levels of cholesterol in your blood can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries, a major contributor to heart attacks.

High Blood Pressure

If you have high blood pressure, your heart is working harder than normal to pump blood throughout your body. Blood pressure is the force of blood on arterial walls. Over time, this excess force causes blood vessel damage, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. If you have high blood pressure and are not keeping your blood pressure in a specific target range, you have an increased risk of having a heart attack.

Obesity and Overweight

Even if you have no other risk factors, being obese or overweight will increase your risk of a heart attack. It also adds to your chances of developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. These are all risk factors for cardiovascular disease and heart attack.

Glucose Intolerance

Glucose intolerance and diabetes are metabolic disorders in which the body does not produce or effectively use insulin. Diabetes is associated with an increased risk a heart attack and early death.

Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a condition is marked by elevated blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose, and body weight. Excess weight centered on the midsection is of particular concern. Having metabolic syndrome increases your risk of a heart attack as well as other disorders.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a disorder characterized by repeated episodes of complete or partial airway obstruction during sleep. The disorder is associated with disrupted sleep patterns and decreased oxygen saturation (the amount of oxygen carried in the bloodstream). OSA has been linked to several disorders, including cardiovascular disease and early death. Complications of OSA include high blood pressure, heart failure, diabetes, stroke, and heart attack.

Factors That Cannot Be Changed


The heart has a normal decrease in function as we age. This decrease is generally not enough to cause problems, but can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Some changes include an increase in heart size, slower heart rate, and stiffer blood vessels and valves.


Men have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease over all, but women's risk increases dramatically after menopause. It is thought that the natural decrease in estrogen levels plays a role in this increase. As a result, heart attacks are more likely to occur in men over the age of 45, and in women over the age of 55.

Genetics and Ethnicity

Having family members that have had heart attacks increases your risk as well.

In general, African Americans have a higher incidence of high blood pressure than Caucasians and therefore, a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease risk is also higher among Mexican Americans, American Indians, native Hawaiians, and some Asian Americans. Cardiovascular disease increases your risk of having a heart attack.


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Last reviewed March 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael J. Fucci, DO, FACC  Last Updated: 7/17/2017