Heart disease is the leading cause of death in this country for both men and women. Although it's usually considered a disease of old age, heart disease can strike at any age.

Some of the reasons that we get heart disease—family history, gender and age—cannot be controlled. Men are more likely to have a heart attack than women, and men have heart attacks earlier in life. Children of parents with heart disease are more likely to get it themselves. African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Native Americans, native Hawaiians and some Asian-Americans also have a higher risk.

The good news is that you can control some things that add to your chance of getting heart disease:

  • Diabetes: High blood sugar damages your blood vessels. If you manage your diabetes well, you reduce your chances of getting heart disease. And if you can keep yourself from becoming a type 2 diabetic through diet and exercise, even better.
  • High blood pressure: High blood pressure makes your heart work harder and increases your chance for stroke, kidney failure and congestive heart failure. You can control high blood pressure with diet, exercise, weight loss and medication.
  • High cholesterol: If you have high cholesterol, you are more likely to get heart disease. Control blood cholesterol with diet, exercise, weight loss and medication.
  • Obesity: Being overweight makes it more likely that you will get diabetes, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol. Obesity also increases your risk of heart disease. If you have extra body fat, especially around the waist, you are more likely to get heart disease. How do you change your odds? Lose weight safely.
  • Physical inactivity: To help keep you from getting the conditions listed above, get more regular physical activity. Exercise also helps make your heart muscle stronger.
  • Tobacco smoke: If you smoke, you have 2 to 4 times the chance of getting heart disease than a nonsmoker. Although it may not be easy, you can reduce that chance by quitting.
  • Stress: The way that you respond to stress may make you more likely to get heart disease. If you turn to food, drugs, alcohol or tobacco when life is stressful, you are adding to your chance of heart disease. Try finding other ways to deal with stress. Exercise, meditate or find support with friends or family or a professional therapist.
  • Alcohol: Although research shows that moderate alcohol intake may lower your chance of heart disease, too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure as well as add to your chances of cancer and stroke. Be careful to not overdo it, and be aware that drinking moderately is different for each person. Stay on the safe side.

In addition, if you have a condition known as metabolic syndrome you are more likely to get heart disease and diabetes. If you have three or more of the below, talk to your doctor:

  • Waist size bigger than 35 inches for women or 40 inches for men
  • Triglycerides higher than 150 mg/dL
  • HDL levels of less than 50 mg/dL for women or less than 40 mg/dL for men
  • Blood pressure in excess of 130/85 mmHg
  • Fasting blood sugars of 100 mg/dL or more

Small changes can make a big difference in reducing your chances of getting heart disease. For instance, losing just 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can help to reduce your risk. That means that a woman who weighs 200 pounds who loses between 10 and 20 pounds can make a good impact on reducing her chances.

Eating a heart-healthy diet built around vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy and fruit, as well as regular physical activity, can go a long way toward reducing risk for heart disease.

Published on Dec. 21, 2009; updated on June 3, 2014.