Diseases & Conditions A - Z
powered by Talix

Causes and Risks of Heart Disease

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is sometimes called coronary heart disease (CHD). It is the leading cause of death among adults in the United States. Learning about the causes and risk factors of the disease may help you avoid heart problems.

Causes of heart disease

Heart disease occurs when plaque develops in the arteries and blood vessels that lead to the heart. This blocks important nutrients and oxygen from reaching your heart.

Plaque is a waxy substance made up of cholesterol, fatty molecules, and minerals. Plaque accumulates over time when the inner lining of an artery is damaged by high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, or elevated cholesterol or triglycerides. 

Risk factors

Several risk factors play an important role in determining whether or not you’re likely to develop heart disease. Two of these factors, age and heredity, are out of your control.

The risk of CHD increases around the age of 55 in women and 45 in men. Your risk may be greater if you have close family members who have a history of heart disease.

Other risk factors for heart disease include:

  • obesity
  • insulin resistance or diabetes
  • high cholesterol and blood pressure
  • family history of heart disease
  • being physically inactive
  • smoking
  • eating an unhealthy diet
  • clinical depression

Unhealthy lifestyle choices

Though genetic factors can increase your risk of developing heart disease, unhealthy lifestyle choices also play a big role.

Some unhealthy lifestyle choices that can contribute to heart disease include:

  • living a sedentary lifestyle and not getting enough physical exercise
  • eating an unhealthy diet that is high in fat proteins, trans fats, sugary foods, and sodium
  • smoking
  • excessive drinking
  • staying in a high-stress environment without proper stress management techniques
  • not managing your diabetes

Link between heart disease and type 2 diabetes

It is estimated that people with type 2 diabetes, and especially those who have reached middle age, are twice as likely to have heart disease or experience a stroke as people who do not have diabetes.

Adults with diabetes tend to have heart attacks at a younger age and are more likely to experience multiple heart attacks if they have insulin resistance or high blood glucose levels.

The reason for this is the relationship between glucose and blood vessel health.

High blood glucose levels that aren’t managed can increase the amount of plaque that forms within the walls of the blood vessels, hindering or stopping the flow of blood to the heart.

If you have diabetes, you can reduce the risk of heart disease by managing your blood sugar carefully. Follow a diabetes-friendly diet that’s rich in fiber and low in sugar, fat, and simple carbohydrates.

You should also maintain a healthy weight. If you smoke, now’s a good time to consider quitting. Managing your blood sugar levels can prevent heart disease, eye disease, and circulation problems.


Some studies have shown that individuals suffering from depression develop heart disease at higher rates than the general population. 

Depression can lead to a number of changes in your body that can increase your risk for developing heart disease or having a heart attack. Too much stress and or consistently feeling sad can elevate your blood pressure and your levels of a substance called C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP is a marker for inflammation in the body. Higher-than-normal levels of CRP have also been shown to predict coronary heart disease.

Depression can also lead to a decreased interest in daily activities, including daily routines like exercise that are necessary to help prevent heart disease. This can lead to unhealthy behavior, such as skipping medications, not putting effort into eating a healthy diet, drinking too much alcohol, or smoking cigarettes.

Talk with your doctor if you’re feeling depressed. Professional help can get you back on the path to good health and may reduce the possibility of recurring problems.

The takeaway

Heart disease is dangerous, but it can be prevented in many cases. Everyone would benefit from maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle, but it is particularly important for those with increased risk.

The following strategies can help prevent heart disease:

  • exercise regularly
  • maintain a healthy diet
  • maintain a healthy weight
  • reduce stress in your life
  • stop smoking
  • drink in moderation
  • get annual physicals from your doctor to detect abnormalities and assess risk factors
  • take supplements, as advised by your doctor
  • know the warning signs of heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes

Living a healthy lifestyle is one of the most effective ways you can prevent heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes. Preventing heart disease should be a priority whether you’re in your 20s or in your 60s. 

Content licensed from:

Written by: Erica Roth and Ana Gotter
Medically reviewed on: Jun 07, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
Symptom Search
Enter your symptoms in our Symptom Checker to find out possible causes of your symptoms. Go.
Drug Interaction Checker
Enter any list of prescription drugs and see how they interact with each other and with other substances. Go.
Pill Identifier
Enter its color and shape information, and this tool helps you identify it. Go.
Drugs A-Z
Find information on drug interactions, side effects, and more. Go.