The Basics: Overview
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Take steps today to lower your risk of heart disease.
To help prevent heart disease, you can:
- Eat healthy.
- Get active.
- Stay at a healthy weight.
- Quit smoking and stay away from secondhand smoke.
- Control your cholesterol and blood pressure.
- Drink alcohol only in moderation.
- Manage stress.
Am I at risk for heart disease?
Everyone is at risk for heart disease. But you are at higher risk for heart disease if you:
- Have high cholesterol or high blood pressure
- Are overweight or obese
- Don't get enough physical activity
- Don't eat a healthy diet
Your age and family history also affect your risk for heart disease. Your risk is higher if:
- You are a woman over age 55
- You are a man over age 45
- Your father or brother had heart disease before age 55
- Your mother or sister had heart disease before age 65
But the good news is there's a lot you can do to prevent heart disease.
The Basics: What Is Heart Disease?
What is heart disease?
When people talk about heart disease, they are usually talking about coronary heart disease (CHD). It’s also called coronary artery disease (CAD). This is the most common type of heart disease.
When someone has CHD, the coronary arteries (tubes) that take blood to the heart are narrow or blocked. This happens when cholesterol and fatty material, called plaque, build up inside the arteries.
Plaque is caused by:
- Too much fat and cholesterol in the blood
- High blood pressure
- Too much sugar in the blood (diabetes)
When plaque blocks an artery, it’s hard for blood to flow to the heart. A blocked artery can cause chest pain or a heart attack. Learn more about CHD.
Take Action: Sign of Heart Attack
What is a heart attack?
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is suddenly blocked. Part of the heart may die if the person doesn’t get help quickly.
Some common signs of a heart attack include:
- Pain or discomfort in the center or left side of the chest – or a feeling of pressure, squeezing, or fullness
- Pain or discomfort in the upper body – like the arms, back, shoulders, neck, jaw, or upper stomach (above the belly button)
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing (while resting or being active)
- Feeling sick to your stomach or throwing up
- Stomach ache or feeling like you have heartburn
- Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or unusually tired
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
Not everyone who has a heart attack will have all the signs. Learn more about the signs of a heart attack.
Don’t ignore changes in how you feel.
Signs of a heart attack often come on suddenly. But sometimes, they develop slowly – hours, days, or even weeks before a heart attack happens.
Talk to your doctor if you feel unusually tired for several days, or if you develop any new health problems (like pain or trouble breathing). It's also important to talk to your doctor if existing health issues (like pain) are bothering you more than usual.
If you’ve had a heart attack in the past, it’s important to know that symptoms of a new heart attack might be different from your last one – so talk with your doctor if you have any concerns about how you feel.
Take Action: When to Call 911
Call 911 right away if you or someone else has signs of a heart attack.
Don’t ignore any signs or feel embarrassed to call for help. Acting fast can save a life. Call 911 even if you aren't sure it’s a heart attack.
An ambulance is the best and safest way to get to the hospital. In an ambulance, EMTs (emergency medical technicians) can keep track of how you are doing and start life-saving treatments right away.
People who call an ambulance often get treated faster at the hospital. And, if you call 911, the operator can tell you what to do until the ambulance gets there.
Take Action: Know Your Numbers
Take steps today to lower your risk for heart disease.
Control your cholesterol and blood pressure.
High cholesterol and high blood pressure can cause heart disease and heart attack. If your cholesterol or blood pressure numbers are high, you can take steps to lower them.
Get your cholesterol checked.
It’s important to get your cholesterol checked at least every 4 to 6 years. Some people will need to get it checked more or less often.
Get your blood pressure checked.
Starting at age 18, get your blood pressure checked regularly. High blood pressure has no signs or symptoms.
Use the myhealthfinder tool to get more screening recommendations based on your age and sex.
Take Action: Talk with Your Doctor
Know your family’s health history.
Your family history affects your risk for heart disease. Use this family health history tool to keep track of your family’s health. Share the information with your doctor or nurse.
If you are worried about a family member’s risk for heart disease, use these tips to start a conversation about heart health.
Ask your doctor about taking aspirin every day.
If you are age 50 to 59, taking aspirin every day can lower your risk of heart attack and stroke – but it’s not recommended for everyone. Talk with your doctor to find out if taking aspirin is the right choice for you.
Talk to your doctor about taking medicine to lower your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Experts recommend that some people ages 40 to 75 take medicines called statins if they are at high risk for heart attack and stroke. Use these questions to talk with your doctor about statins.
Take Action: Food and Alcohol
Eating healthy can help lower your risk of heart disease. A heart-healthy diet includes foods that are low in saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium (salt).
Heart-healthy items include high-fiber foods (whole grains, fruits, and vegetables) and certain fats (like the fats in olive oil and fish). Use this shopping list to find heart-healthy foods.
Check out these heart-healthy recipe collections:
- Keep the Beat™
- Heart Healthy Home Cooking African American Style [PDF - 3 MB]
- Delicious Heart Healthy Latino Recipes [PDF - 3 MB]
Get heart-healthy tips for dining out [PDF - 3 MB]. For example, ask for a side salad instead of chips or french fries.
Drink alcohol only in moderation.
If you choose to drink alcohol, drink only in moderation. This means limiting your drinking to no more than 1 drink a day for woman and no more than 2 drinks a day for men. Drinking too much alcohol can increase your risk of heart disease.
Take Action: Physical Activity
Getting active can help prevent heart disease. Adults need at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week. This includes walking fast, dancing, and biking.
If you are just getting started, try walking for 10 minutes a day, a few days each week. Then add more activity over time.
Stay at a healthy weight.
People who are overweight or obese are at an increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. If you are overweight or obese, losing just 10 pounds can lower your risk of heart disease. Find out how to control your weight.
If you don't know if you are at a healthy weight, use this BMI calculator to figure out your BMI (body mass index).
Take Action: Healthy Habits
Quit smoking and stay away from secondhand smoke.
Quitting smoking helps lower your risk of heart disease and heart attack. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) for free support and to set up your plan for quitting.
Avoiding secondhand smoke is important, too – so keep your home smoke-free. If you have guests who smoke, ask them to smoke outside. If someone in your home smokes, use these tips to start a conversation about quitting.
Managing stress can help prevent serious health problems like heart disease, depression, and high blood pressure. Deep breathing and meditation are good ways to relax and manage stress.
Content last updated January 22, 2020
This content on heart disease was adapted from materials from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Paula T. Einhorn, M.D., M.S.
Medical Officer/Program Director
Clinical Applications and Prevention Branch
Division of Cardiovascular Sciences
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute