Medical Services
Heart Attack Risk Factors

Extensive clinical and statistical studies have identified a number of factors that contribute to an increased risk of heart disease. However, the more risk factors you possess, the greater your chances become for developing a heart problem. Although you may have risk factors you cannot change, it is in your best interest to change those you can.

Risk Factors You Can Change

  • Cigarette Smoking
  • High Blood Pressure
  • High Blood Cholesterol Level
  • High Fasting Blood Sugar or Diabetes Mellitus
  • Obesity
  • Physical Inactivity

Risk Factors You Cannot Change

  • Age
  • Heredity
  • Prior Heart Attack or Stroke

Cigarette Smoking

Smoking is the biggest factor in sudden cardiac death. A smoker’s risk of heart attack is twice that of a non-smoker, and smokers who suffer a heart attack are more likely to die than a non-smoker. Smokers expose others to risk as well. Regular exposure to second-hand smoke increases a person’s risk of death due to heart disease by about 30 percent.

High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is present in as much as 25 percent of our population. Because high blood pressure often has no symptoms, it has been called the “silent killer.” The only way to know if your blood pressure is elevated or not is to have it checked.

An elevated blood pressure indicates that the heart is working too hard, straining the heart and arteries. The extra workload placed on the heart muscle can damage it and eventually result in heart failure. High blood pressure can damage artery walls and increase cholesterol build-up (atherosclerosis).

Tips for Reducing and Keeping Blood Pressure Low

  • Don’t smoke cigarettes
  • Limit consumption of salt and salty foods
  • Achieve and maintain an ideal weight
  • Get regular aerobic exercise, such as walking
  • Avoid excessive stress and take time to relax
  • Limit alcohol intake or don’t drink
  • Limit or avoid use of caffeinated beverages
  • Take blood pressure medicine when prescribed
  • Get adequate calcium in your diet (low fat milk, yogurt and leafy greens)
  • Have blood pressure checked by a health professional regularly

High Cholesterol Level

High blood cholesterol is another major risk factor for heart and blood vessel disease. Cholesterol is a soft, fat-like substance found in all the body’s cells. People get cholesterol in two ways. The human body produces cholesterol itself and cholesterol comes from animal foods such as egg yolks, meat, fish, poultry, and whole milk diary products (plant foods do not contain cholesterol). Although cholesterol is an important and essential component of our bodies, too much can lead to serious problems. Blood cholesterol levels of 200 (5.2 mmol/L) and above are considered high.

High levels of cholesterol in the blood increases the chance of cholesterol depositing itself on the artery walls, thus plugging the blood vessels. This disease process is called “hardening of the arteries” or artherosclerosis.

Blood Cholesterol Level

Recommended:  Below 200 mg/dl (5.2 mmol/L) 180 (4.69 mmol/L) or below

It is possible to lower your cholesterol level through eating a diet low in fat and cholesterol, and getting regular exercise. If you have a more serious cholesterol problem, your doctor may prescribe cholesterol-lowering medication in addition to a heart healthy diet and exercise.


Diabetes, or high blood sugar, is a serious condition that significantly increases the risk of coronary heart disease. Eighty percent of diabetics die of some form of cardiovascular disease, quite often a heart attack. There is no cure for diabetes, but you can take steps to control it. Eighty-five percent of people that have adult onset diabetes are at least 20 percent overweight. It seems that obesity and age promote the development of diabetes. Good weight management, increasing physical activity and limiting calories and fat in you diet will help in the prevention and control of this disease.

Elkhart General Hospital offers a Diabetes Management Program for those who want to learn how to strictly control their blood sugar levels to slow or prevent the progression of diabetes and its complications. Call 574-296-3555.

Weight Management/Obesity

For many people, weight management is an important step in heart health. Excess weight increases the strain on the heart and influences blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and diabetes. Losing weight, if needed, helps reduce high blood fats and blood pressure, reduces your risk of heart disease and makes exercise easier.

Weight Control Tips

  • Limit your consumption of high fat foods
  • Eat low calorie, high fiber foods
  • Use only nonfat or low fat dairy products
  • Choose only lean meats, fish, and skinless poultry, or low fat vegetable protein
  • Eat a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Keep serving sizes moderate and avoid second servings
  • Exercise regularly
  • Limit intake of high calorie/low nutrient foods, such as desserts, soft drinks and typical snack foods

Waist-to-Hip Ratio

Research shows that heart health can be influenced by body shape. Your risk from body shape can be determined by the waist-to-hip ratio.

To calculate your waist-to-hip ratio:

  1. Measure your waist at its narrow part, at the level of the navel or just above in women.
  2. Measure your hips where buttocks are largest
  3. Divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement. Example: 28" waist /39” hip = 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio.


    • A waist-to-hip ratio greater than 0.95 = increased risk.
    • A man’s waist measurement should not exceed his hip measurement.


    • A waist-to-hip ratio greater than 0.8 = increased risk.
    • A women’s waist measurement should not exceed 80 percent of her hip measurement.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to lose and maintain weight, please visit our Weight Management Services section. 

Physical Activity

Regular activity and aerobic exercise can help you reduce your risk of heart disease. The American College of Sports Medicine and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention both recommend that every adult be physically active for at least 30 minutes a day. Exercise helps to take off extra pounds, helps to control blood pressure, lessens a diabetic’s need for insulin and can improve blood cholesterol levels. Thirty to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise three to four times every week is recommended for the best cardiovascular fitness. Aerobic exercise includes such activities as brisk walking, jogging, swimming, aerobics and tennis.

If you have a history of heart problems or are at risk for heart disease, you should consider a supervised exercise program. Elkhart General provides heart healthy fitness classes that are medically supervised by Registered Nurses fully trained in exercise therapy and CPR. For more information, see our Cardiac Rehabilitation Services section. 

Please visit these websites for additional information

CardioSmart: The American College of Cardiology at

Aetna: InteliHealth at

UpToDate: an evidence based, peer reviewed information resource at