Causes and Risks

Heart disease is a chronic illness, meaning that once you have it, you’ll live with it for the rest of your life, even if you don’t display symptoms at certain times. Heart disease, sometimes called “coronary heart disease” or “CHD,” is the leading cause of death among adults in the United States, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Educating yourself about the causes and risk factors of the condition can help you avoid potentially fatal episodes of heart attack, stroke, and other forms of heart disease.

Causes of Heart Disease

Heart disease occurs when the arteries and blood vessels that lead to the heart are impaired or blocked. This prevents essential nutrients—especially oxygen—from reaching your heart. These blockages can be caused by a variety of medical conditions and lifestyle choices, including:

  • high cholesterol—elevated cholesterol levels create plaque, a waxy substance that accumulates in your blood vessels and restricts the passing of nutrients to your heart.
  • smoking—nicotine can deprive your body—including your heart—of oxygen, which causes your blood vessels to become less elastic.
  • high blood pressure—higher-than-normal forces of blood circulating through your arteries can damage your heart and other vital organs.

Taking steps to normalize your blood pressure and cholesterol levels may slow or even stop the development of heart disease. Adjusting your lifestyle through exercise and following a healthy diet also may reduce your risk factors for heart disease. Speak to your doctor about developing an exercise routine and diet that’s appropriate for your age, weight, and overall health.

Risk Factors

A number of risk factors play a significant role in determining whether or not you’re likely to develop heart disease, explains the NHLBI. Some of these factors, such as aging and heredity, are out of your control. The risk of CHD increases around the age of 55 in women and 45 in men, but your risk may be elevated further if you have close family members with a history of heart disease.

Although heart disease can be hereditary, family history holds only a small piece in the heart disease puzzle, suggests the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Often, families share the same attitudes towards food and physical activity and live in a common environment, which can heighten risk as well. The following are risk factors that you can minimize by leading a healthy lifestyle:

Consult your doctor or a nutritionist to determine how to transition to a diet that’s more heart-healthy. Consuming vast amounts of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can also help you reach your ideal weight, which can stabilize your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels. Your healthcare team can suggest ways to become more active in a way that’s safe for your condition. They can also help you quit smoking.

Link Between Heart Disease and Diabetes

The link between heart disease and diabetes can mean potentially serious health problems for some people. The National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC) estimates that people with diabetes—especially those who have reached middle age—have twice the possibility of experiencing heart disease or stroke as people without diabetes. Adults with diabetes tend to suffer heart attacks at a younger age and are more likely to experience subsequent heart attacks as a result of insulin resistance or high blood glucose levels.

The reason behind these staggering statistics 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, impeding the flow of blood to the heart.

Adults with diabetes can reduce their risk of heart disease by managing their blood sugar carefully, following a diabetes-friendly diet that’s rich in fiber and low in sugar, fat, and simple carbohydrates, and maintaining a healthy weight. Refrain from smoking to prevent not only heart disease but eye disease and circulation problems as well.


It’s normal to experience depression after a heart attack, surgery, or other serious health crisis. However, if your sadness begins to affect your daily life or causes you to become unable to cope with everyday tasks, you may need treatment. Depression can impede the recovery process by increasing your perception of pain and levels of fatigue. It can also have a negative effect on heart health in people who don’t have heart disease.

A serious case of the blues can lead to a number of changes in your body that could increase your risk for developing cardiovascular disease or having a heart attack.  Excessive stress and sadness can elevate your blood pressure and your levels of a substance called C-reactive proteins (CRP), a marker for inflammation in the body. Higher-than-normal levels of CRP may indicate heart disease.

Discuss your feelings of depression with your doctor if you remain depressed and feel hopeless and isolated several weeks after a heart event or other medical crisis. Contact a medical care provider immediately if you feel suicidal. Professional help in the form of support and medications can get you back on the track to good health and could minimize your likelihood of relapse or recurring illness.

Heart Disease in Pregnancy

Heart disease and pregnancy can be a dangerous mix to both mother and child. During a normal pregnancy, maternal blood volume increases by approximately half, putting a strain on even a healthy heart. A diseased heart may have difficulty pumping the additional blood throughout the body during gestation, and can be further weakened by the demands of labor and delivery.

The good news is that while heart disease in a pregnant woman is a very serious matter, Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital reports that only about one percent of expectant mothers suffer from heart disease. However, some women may have underlying heart defects that remain unknown until the strain of pregnancy causes the condition to manifest. Consult your primary care physician or obstetrician if you’re pregnant and display some of these symptoms:

  • breathing difficulties—those not related to the baby’s position
  • heart palpitations—irregular or skipped heartbeats
  • lightheadedness or fainting
  • “clicking” sounds with each heart beat
  • bluish tint to your lips or fingertips (cyanosis)

Based on your symptoms and medical history, your doctor will perform tests to determine if your heart is functioning normally. Some heart conditions, such as stenosis, require antibiotics and intensive care during and after delivery to prevent infection. Pregnancy should be avoided with more serious heart conditions, such as unrepaired defects in a woman’s heart chambers. Women who have heart disease prior to conceiving should discuss their health with a physician as part of the family planning process to ensure a healthy pregnancy and baby.