Some risk factors for coronary artery disease (CAD) include smoking, lack of exercise, and older age. Although people cannot change some risk factors, they can improve others to help prevent CAD.

CAD is due to a build up of plaque in the coronary arteries, which supply blood to their heart.

Plaque comprises cholesterol, fat, and other substances found in blood. Over time, plaque buildup may cause the arteries to narrow and harden, a condition healthcare professionals call atherosclerosis.

Other names for CAD are coronary heart disease and ischemic heart disease.

This article discusses risk factors for CAD in more detail. It also discusses how to help prevent it and when to speak with a doctor.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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People cannot change some risk factors for CAD. Doctors may refer to these as non-modifiable risk factors. They include:

  • Older age: A person’s risk of CAD increases after age 35 years.
  • Male sex assigned at birth: Males are more at risk of developing CAD than females.
  • Ethnicity: CAD occurs more frequently in certain ethnic groups, including Black individuals, Hispanic people, Latino individuals, and Southeast Asian people. Some research suggests that one reason for this may be racial bias in healthcare.
  • Family history of the condition: Having a family history of heart disease increases a person’s CAD risk. People with a family history of early CAD, which develops before the age of 50, have a further increased risk.

According to 2019 research, up to 80% of a person’s CAD risk comes from non-modifiable risk factors.

People can modify, or change, other risk factors for CAD. The rest of this article discusses modifiable risk factors for CAD in more detail.

Cardiovascular health resources

Visit our dedicated hub for more research-backed information and in-depth resources on cardiovascular health.

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Smoking can damage a person’s heart and blood vessels. This increases a person’s risk of heart disease, atherosclerosis, and heart attack.

Cigarette smoke contains nicotine, which raises a person’s blood pressure. It also contains carbon monoxide, which reduces the amount of oxygen a person’s blood can carry.

Secondhand smoke can also increase a person’s risk of developing CAD, even for people who do not smoke.

Learn more about why smoking is bad for you.

Scientists are still investigating links between diet and CAD. However, several older studies have found eating high amounts of certain foods may increase a person’s risk of developing CAD or CAD-related conditions. These include:

Consuming too much salt can also raise a person’s blood pressure, and excessive alcohol consumption can increase thei risk of CAD.

Some scientists have recently called into question the link between saturated fats and CAD. However, the American Heart Association (AHA) and other health organizations still recommend limiting saturated fats in the diet.

People should speak with a healthcare professional before making any significant changes to their diet.

Learn how much saturated fat it is safe to eat daily.

Scientists are still researching the exact relationship between obesity and CAD. However, research indicates that living with obesity increases a person’s risk of CAD.

It also increases a person’s risk of developing other CAD risk factors, such as:

Learn more about the connection between obesity and CAD.

Diabetes is a condition in which the body cannot process blood sugar properly, causing blood sugar levels to rise.

People with diabetes have an increased risk of damage to several parts of their body, including the following:

They also have an increased risk of developing CAD.

Learn more about diabetes and heart disease.

High blood pressure is a significant risk factor for CAD. It damages and stresses the arteries, raising a person’s risk of CAD.

Hypertension is the medical term for high blood pressure.

Learn more about hypertension, stroke, and heart disease.

Cholesterol is a substance that the liver makes. It is also present in some foods.

If the body takes in more cholesterol than it can use, atherosclerosis can occur. In turn, this can increase a person’s CAD risk.

Additionally, familial hypercholesterolemia, which is an inherited condition that leads to high cholesterol levels, can increase the risk of CAD. However, early diagnosis and treatment of familial hypercholesterolemia can help decrease a person’s risk by up to 80%.

Learn more about high cholesterol and heart disease.

Exercise can help to prevent CAD.

Therefore, not engaging in regular physical activity can increase a person’s CAD risk and their risk of developing other risk factors for CAD, such as obesity and diabetes.

Learn more about the benefits of exercise.

People can help delay or prevent the development of CAD by:

  • quitting smoking
  • being physically active
  • maintaining a moderate weight
  • eating a diet low in both sodium and saturated fat

The CDC also recommends limiting alcohol consumption. They recommend no more than one drink per day for females and no more than two drinks per day for males.

Learn more about preventing a heart attack.

People with CAD may not have any symptoms until they experience a heart attack. They may have chest pain, or angina, a common symptom of CAD.

People with any of the following symptoms should seek immediate emergency medical attention:

  • chest pain or discomfort that:
    • feels like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain
    • is in the center or left side of a person’s chest
    • lasts for a few minutes or goes away and comes back
  • shortness of breath
  • weakness
  • lightheadedness
  • cold sweat
  • pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, or back
  • pain or discomfort in one or both arms or shoulders

Other symptoms of a heart attack may include having unusual or unexplained fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. These symptoms are more likely in females.

Read about the signs of a heart attack in a female.

CAD is a condition that affects a person’s heart. It occurs due to plaque buildup in the arteries that carry blood to the heart. This buildup causes the arteries to narrow over time, which can lead to chest pain or heart attacks.

Non-modifiable risk factors for CAD include older age and a family history of heart disease. Modifiable risk factors include smoking, obesity, and diabetes.

A person should speak with a healthcare professional for more information about their individual risk of developing CAD.

Is it a heart attack?

Heart attacks occur when there is a lack of blood supply to the heart. Symptoms include:

  • chest pain, pressure, or tightness
  • pain that may spread to arms, neck, jaw, or back
  • nausea and vomiting
  • sweaty or clammy skin
  • heartburn or indigestion
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing or wheezing
  • lightheadedness or dizziness
  • anxiety that can feel similar to a panic attack

If someone has these symptoms:

  1. Dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department.
  2. Stay with them until the emergency services arrive.

If a person stops breathing before emergency services arrive, perform manual chest compressions:

  1. Lock fingers together and place the base of hands in the center of the chest.
  2. Position shoulders over hands and lock elbows.
  3. Press hard and fast, at a rate of 100–120 compressions per minute, to a depth of 2 inches.
  4. Continue these movements until the person starts to breathe or move.
  5. If needed, swap over with someone else without pausing compressions.

Use an automated external defibrillator (AED) available in many public places:

  1. An AED provides a shock that may restart the heart.
  2. Follow the instructions on the defibrillator or listen to the guided instructions.
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