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Many people understand that there is a connection between poor diet, lack of exercise and the development of heart disease. But your risk of developing cardiovascular disease is the result of a combination of many risk factors. There are two main categories of risks that contribute to heart disease—those that you can't change (uncontrollable risks), and those that you can (controllable risks).
Uncontrollable Risk Factors
These variables are out of your control. Although you can't do anything to change them, it's important to know whether you fall into any of these higher-risk categories. How many of these risk factors do you exhibit?
Your age. Men over 45 and women over 55 are more likely to develop heart disease than their younger counterparts. The American Heart Association (AHA) states that more than 83 percent of people who die of coronary heart disease are 65 or older. Why? Plaque begins to slowly deposit in the arteries starting in childhood, so simply getting older increases your risk of developing heart disease and having a heart attack. The older you get, the more likely you are to have damaged arteries and/or a weakened heart muscle. Most people have plaque buildup in the arteries by the time they reach their 70s, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, but only about one-quarter of these people will exhibit signs or symptoms of cardiovascular disease.
Your sex. Overall, more men have heart attacks than women do, and they experience them earlier in life, too. While a woman's risk of dying from heart disease increases after menopause, it's still lower than a man's.
Your family history. If people in your family have heart disease—especially close or immediate relatives, your risk of developing it increases. If a parent or sibling developed heart disease at an early age (before age 55 for men, or before age 65 for women), your risk is even higher. Developing heart disease isn't necessarily in your DNA, however. Lifestyle habits (diet, exercise, smoking, drinking, etc.) tend to be passed down from generation to generation, which means that some portion of this risk is controllable.
Your race. Somewhat related to family history, your race can also predetermine part of your risk of heart disease. African Americans, American Indians, Mexican Americans, and native Hawaiians are more likely to have heart disease than Caucasians, but this is partly due to other risk factors that these populations tend to experience, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
Your body type. Whether or not you become overweight or obese is mostly within your control, but you cannot control your weight distribution, which refers to where your body stores fat. For years, experts warned that people who tend to carry excess weight in their belly area (known as "apple" shapes) are at a greater risk of several health problems, including heart disease, while "pear" shaped bodies that store more fat in the lower body don't have the same risk. However, one 2010 study published in The Lancet dispelled that idea, saying that being overweight (regardless of where your body stores the fat) is a heart disease risk factor. Your genetics determine your body type; if you are apple-shaped now, you will always be apple-shaped, even if you lose weight. Still, maintaining a healthy body weight—which would decrease your waist circumference—is a controllable risk factor (more on that below) that can reduce your heart disease risk.