Heart disease develops when tissues of the cardiovascular system (heart or blood vessels) become damaged and dysfunctional. Damage to nearly any part of the heart or blood vessels can lead to damage in other parts. For instance, hypertension (high blood pressure) can cause atherosclerosis (fatty plaques that narrow the arteries), and atherosclerosis causes coronary artery disease, which causes potentially fatal heart attacks. In other words, one type of heart disease is a major risk factor for another type of heart disease.
While researchers have established that both hereditary and environmental factors influence a person’s risk for developing heart disease, no one is certain why some people get heart disease and some people don’t. Most scientists believe heart disease is most likely caused by a combination of inherited and environmental factors.
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Risk for heart disease rises with age. Women are at greater risk for heart disease around age 55, after menopause. For men, the risk begins about 10 years earlier. In the U.S., the average age at first heart attack is about 65 for men and 72 for women. Between 4 percent and 10 percent of heart attacks strike people — mostly men — younger than 45.
Heart disease is not directly passed on in a straightforward pattern, but having close family members with heart disease raises your risk for developing heart disease yourself. Your risk is higher if your father or brother was diagnosed with heart disease before age 55, or your mother or sister was diagnosed with heart disease before age 65. Most researchers believe that the risk for heart disease is influenced by many different genes.
Some people are born with congenital heart defects that increase their risk for developing serious heart disease later on.
The three most important factors that influence the development of heart disease are:
Other risk factors for heart disease include:
Some types of heart disease are caused by a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection. In some cases, heart disease is a late side effect of radiation therapy for cancer.
Since it is not clear what causes some people to develop heart disease, there is no certain way to prevent it. Some risk factors, including genetic predisposition and congenital heart defects, are beyond anyone’s control.
If you are concerned you may have a high risk for developing heart disease, focus on lowering your risk by changing the factors within your control. Ways to lower the risk for developing heart disease include:
These changes may or may not help prevent heart disease, but they are likely to improve your overall health.