Knowledge is power. Understand the risks you face for heart attack.

Extensive research has identified factors that increase a person’s risk for coronary heart disease in general and heart attack in particular.

The more risk factors you have, and the greater the degree of each risk factor, the higher your chance of developing coronary heart disease — a common term for the buildup of plaque in the heart’s arteries that could lead to heart attack. Risk factors fall into three broad categories:

— Major risk factors. Research has shown that these factors significantly increase the risk of heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) disease.

— Modifiable risk factors. Some major risk factors can be modified, treated or controlled through medications or lifestyle change.

— Contributing risk factors  These factors are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, but their significance and prevalence haven’t yet been determined.

The American Heart Association recommends focusing on heart disease prevention early in life. To start, assess your risk factors and work to keep them low. The sooner you identify and manage your risk factors, the better your chances of leading a heart-healthy life.

Major Risk Factors That Can’t Be Changed

You may be born with certain risk factors that cannot be changed. The more of these risk factors you have, the greater your chance of developing coronary heart disease. Since you can’t do anything about these risk factors, it’s even more important that you manage your risk factors that can be changed.

Increasing Age.The majority of people who die of coronary heart disease are 65 or older. While heart attacks can strike people of both sexes in old age, women are at greater risk of dying (within a few weeks).

Male Gender. Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women do, and men have attacks earlier in life.Even after women reach the age of menopause, when women’s death rate from heart disease increases, women’s risk for heart attack is less than that for men.

Heredity (including race). Children of parents with heart disease are more likely to develop heart disease themselves.

African-Americans have more severe high blood pressure than Caucasians, and a higher risk of heart disease. Heart disease risk is also higher among Mexican-Americans, American Indians, native Hawaiians and some Asian-Americans. This is partly due to higher rates of obesity and diabetes.

Most people with a significant family history of heart disease have one or more other risk factors. Just as you can’t control your age, sex and race, you can’t control your family history. So, it’s even more important to treat and control any other modifiable risk factors you have.

Major Risk Factors You Can Modify, Treat or Control

The risk that smokers will develop coronary heart disease is much higher than that for nonsmokers.Cigarette smoking is a powerful independent risk factor for sudden cardiac death in patients with coronary heart disease.

Cigarette smoking also interacts with other risk factors to greatly increase the risk for coronary heart disease. Exposure to other people’s smoke increases the risk of heart disease even for nonsmokers.

Learn about smoking and cardiovascular disease.

As your blood cholesterol rises, so does your risk of coronary heart disease. When other risk factors (such as high blood pressure and tobacco smoke) are also present, this risk increases even more. A person’s cholesterol level is also affected by age, sex, heredity and diet.

Learn more about managing your cholesterol.

High blood pressure increases the heart’s workload, causing the heart muscle to thicken and become stiffer. This stiffening of the heart muscle is not normal and causes the heart to function abnormally. It also increases your risk of stroke, heart attack, kidney failure and congestive heart failure.

When high blood pressure is present alongside obesity, smoking, high blood cholesterol levels or diabetes, the risk of heart attack or stroke increases even more.

Learn more about managing your blood pressure.

An inactive lifestyle is a risk factor for coronary heart disease. Regular, moderate to vigorous physical activity helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Physical activity can help control blood cholesterol, diabetes and obesity. It can also help to lower blood pressure in some people.

Learn more about getting active.

Preventing Heart Attacks

Too young to worry about heart attacks? A heart attack can occur at any age. You’re never too young to start heart-healthy living. If you’re over 40, or if you have multiple risk factors, work closely with your doctor to address your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Heart attack prevention is critical. It should begin early in life. Start with an assessment of your risk factors. Then develop a plan you can follow to maintain a low risk for heart attack.

For many people, their first heart attack is disabling or even fatal. Do everything you can to lower your risk.

For more information on preventing or reducing your risk for a heart attack, visit the American Heart Association website,