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What Causes Heart Disease?

Updated on August 24, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Manuel Penton, M.D.
Article written by
Kelly Crumrin
Article written by
Caroline Wallace, Ph.D.

Heart disease, also known as cardiovascular disease, is the leading cause of death for adults in the United States. Heart disease encompasses multiple conditions that affect your heart, including diseases of the heart muscle, valves, or blood vessels. It also includes conditions such as heart infections and arrhythmias (heart rhythm problems). Understanding the causes of heart disease can help a person prevent and treat these life-threatening conditions.

Heart disease develops when tissues of the cardiovascular system become damaged and dysfunctional. Damage to one part of the cardiovascular system can lead to damage in other parts. For example, hypertension (high blood pressure) can cause atherosclerosis (fatty plaques that narrow the arteries). Atherosclerosis, in turn, causes coronary artery disease, which can lead to potentially fatal heart attacks. In other words, one type of heart disease can be a major risk factor for other types of heart disease.

Risk Factors for Heart Disease

While researchers have established that hereditary (inherited genetic factors) and environmental factors influence a person’s risk of developing heart disease, it’s unclear why some people develop heart disease and others don’t. Most heart disease is likely caused by a combination of inherited and environmental factors. One exception is cases of congenital heart disease, in which structural heart problems have been present since birth,

Age and Gender

Personal factors that may change your risk of developing heart disease include age and gender. For example, a person’s risk of developing heart disease increases with age. Adults aged 65 and older are considered more at risk of developing heart disease due to heart and blood vessel changes.

Gender also plays a role in heart disease risk. Men are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease seven to 10 years earlier than women, according to a study published in the Netherlands Heart Journal. This may be due to the protective effects of estrogen in premenopausal women (women who are still menstruating). However, after menopause, women are also at a higher risk of developing heart disease if they do not live a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Hereditary Factors

Heart disease is not directly passed on in a straightforward pattern, but having a family history of heart disease raises your own risk of developing a heart condition.

Most researchers believe that many genes influence the risk of heart disease. Race and ethnicity also play a role because of various social factors. For example, social factors may put African American, Hispanic, and Native American individuals at a disadvantage regarding their heart health.

Environmental and Behavioral Factors

According to the American Heart Association, individuals can control or manage the following major risk factors for heart disease:

  • Being exposed to tobacco smoke
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Having high cholesterol levels
  • Living with diabetes
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Consuming more than two alcoholic drinks per day if you’re a man or one drink if you’re a woman
  • Experiencing high levels of uncontrolled stress
  • Leading a sedentary (inactive) lifestyle
  • Eating a diet high in saturated (animal) and trans fats

Environmental and behavioral factors affecting heart disease may occur individually or together. For example, a person who leads an active lifestyle can still be at risk of high blood pressure or high cholesterol if hereditary factors drive those risks. Regular health care is important to identify these risk factors.

Rarely, heart disease may be caused by exposure to bacteria, viruses, or fungi that lead to infections in the heart. The three main heart infections are:

  • Pericarditis — Inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart
  • Myocarditis — Inflammation of the heart muscle
  • Endocarditis — Infection of the heart valves

Can Heart Disease Be Prevented?

Some heart diseases cannot be prevented — risk factors such as genetic predisposition, age, gender, and congenital heart defects are beyond a person’s control. However, a person can change other environmental and behavioral risk factors. The American Heart Association recommends certain lifestyle changes to protect your heart and reduce your risk.

  • Monitor your levels of total cholesterol, low-density and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and triglycerides.
  • Modify your diet to reduce the amount of saturated and processed fat you eat, and focus on including more fresh produce and lean proteins.
  • Stop smoking, and avoid inhaling secondhand tobacco smoke.
  • Decrease your intake of alcohol.
  • Boost your physical activity level by gradually incorporating daily exercise.
  • Work toward reaching and maintaining a healthy weight through physical activity and diet modifications.
  • Control high blood pressure by reducing your salt intake, exercising more, and eating a heart-healthy diet.
  • Monitor and manage your blood sugar, keeping it at a healthy level, if you have type 2 diabetes.
  • Look for ways to reduce stress, and learn new techniques to manage tension and anxiety.

Taking these steps won’t necessarily prevent heart disease, but they will likely improve your overall health. Adopting healthy habits slowly, such as making one or two changes weekly, can help you maintain your new routine over the long run.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyHeartDiseaseTeam is the social network for people with heart disease and their loved ones. More than 51,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with heart disease.

Have you been diagnosed with heart disease? Do you have questions about risk factors, or are you making any lifestyle changes? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyHeartDiseaseTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Manuel Penton, M.D. is a medical editor at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about him here.
Kelly Crumrin is a senior editor at MyHealthTeam and leads the creation of content that educates and empowers people with chronic illnesses. Learn more about her here.
Caroline Wallace, Ph.D. has a doctorate in biomedical science from the Medical University of South Carolina. Learn more about her here.

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