health professional holding a plastic heart shape in her hands with stethoscope around her neck

In most people, heart disease takes years to develop. However, few medical problems can alter your life as suddenly as a heart attack.

It's important to understand your risk for heart disease and make changes now to help lower your risk for heart problems.

What is heart disease?

There are several conditions that fall under the category of heart disease, also known as cardiovascular disease. This includes coronary artery disease, which is the most common, heart attack, stroke, heart failure, arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), and heart valve problems.

Coronary artery disease, which can lead to a heart attack, is caused by atherosclerosis. This is a condition that develops when plaque builds up in the walls of the heart's arteries. The buildup makes the arteries narrow and makes it more difficult for blood to flow through. Sometimes that buildup can fracture or break off causing a blood clot to form. That blood clot can sometimes block the flow of blood and lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Learn more about heart and vascular conditions and treatments from UC Davis Health

How serious is heart disease?

Heart disease is the primary killer of men and women in the U.S. Heart attacks often strike without warning and result in death for more than 25% of people who suffer one. Those who survive are sometimes left with varying degrees of disability. This can include ongoing chest pain or a weakened heart muscle, which can lead to heart failure or serious heart rhythm problems.

Who is at high risk for heart disease?

People at highest risk for heart disease include men over age 45, women who are past menopause, smokers, and people with high blood pressure or high cholesterol. People with diabetes or those who have a family history of heart disease are also at increased risk. In combination with those risk factors, being more than 20 pounds overweight increases your risk as well.

The good news is that there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of heart disease. Because heart disease takes years to develop, people should make changes before they develop many of the risk factors.

Some steps may involve a change in lifestyle. Others are as simple as getting a checkup or taking daily medications. Most have health benefits well beyond reducing the risk of heart attack.

1. Quit smoking

If you smoke, quitting tobacco is the single most important change you can make to improve your health. If you've tried before but have not been successful, try again. Your health care provider can help you set up a plan. There are a variety of smoking cessation programs and medications to ease the process.

Check out UC Davis Health's Stop Tobacco Program and Workshops

2. Eat a diet low in saturated fat

Reducing the saturated fat in your diet or replacing animal fats with vegetable fats can help you shed unwanted pounds. It's good for your arteries even if you're not overweight. Making the initial change is often harder than sticking with it. There are many varied diets that can work for your palate. Get a good guide, such as a heart-healthy cookbook, and take the suggestions to heart.

Get healthy eating ideas and recipes from UC Davis Health's Good Food Is Good Medicine blog

3. Stay active

Regular exercise is important for everyone, whether you're an athlete or haven't worked out in years. The trick is to make it a habit and do it on a regular basis. Think of an exercise session as something your health care provider ordered, like a daily medication. Aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (physical activity that increases your heart rate) three to four times each week. You can choose a brisk walk with a friend, a swim in a lake, or a morning bike ride.

4. Know your cholesterol

Total cholesterol levels can be broken down into high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). Both of these give important information about your heart disease risk. If your LDL is high, or your HDL is low, talk to your provider. Changes in your diet and exercise may bring levels to normal. Otherwise, you may need medications to control it.

5. Get your blood pressure checked

Your blood pressure should be less than 130 mmHg over less than 80 mmHg (often seen as 130/80). Both numbers are important and our goals have changed over the years. Losing weight and getting regular moderate exercise often brings levels to normal. If not, talk to your provider about medications that can lower your blood pressure.

6. Consider taking a daily aspirin

Taking daily aspirin is recommended for all people who have already had a heart attack or stroke. It's also an important preventive step to consider for people who haven't. Because of the potential harmful side effects of aspirin, consult your provider before using it regularly.

7. If you have diabetes, work towards maximum control

Diabetes is a risk factor for heart disease and can come with a lot of other health concerns. Consult with your provider about bringing your diabetes under control. Proper diet, medication and blood sugar monitoring are keys to success.

Learn more about endocrinology, diabetes and related conditions from UC Davis Health

8. Know the symptoms of a heart attack

It's important to know the symptoms of a heart attack and to get help fast. Heart attacks can happen while doing physical activity or just sitting at home. Here are some symptoms to watch for:

  • Chest pain (This is often described as an uncomfortable pressure, fullness or squeezing sensation, which lasts longer than 10 minutes or is recurring.)
  • Discomfort in the jaw, neck, shoulders or arms
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Feeling lightheaded

Call 911 or seek emergency services right away if you think you're having a heart attack. While many people experience a heart attack without any prior symptoms, if you are fortunate enough to have warning signs, don't ignore them. Quick intervention can make all the difference in surviving a heart attack.

Medically reviewed by Jeffrey Southard, interventional cardiologist.