Risk factors for cardiovascular disease 

There are a number of risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD).

Risk factors for CVD include:

  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • smoking
  • high blood cholesterol
  • diabetes
  • lack of exercise
  • being overweight or obese
  • family history of heart disease
  • ethnic background 

Many of the above risk factors are linked. This means that if you have one risk factor, you're more likely to have others.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure (hypertension) is by far the most important risk factor for CVD.

If your blood pressure is too high, it can damage your artery walls and increase your risk of developing a blood clot.

Blood pressure is measured in millimetres of mercury (mmHg) and is recorded as two figures:

  • systolic pressure – the pressure of the blood when your heart beats to pump blood out
  • diastolic pressure – the pressure of the blood when your heart rests in between beats, which reflects how strongly your arteries are resisting blood flow

A normal blood pressure reading is below 130/80mmHg.

Read more about high blood pressure.


Smoking and other tobacco use are also significant risk factors for CVD.

The toxins (poisons) in tobacco can damage and narrow your coronary arteries, making you more vulnerable to coronary heart disease.

If you smoke, you should try to give up. Your GP will be able to give you help and advice.

Read more about stopping smoking.

High blood cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fatty substance carried in the blood by proteins. When the two combine, they're called lipoproteins. There are harmful and protective lipoproteins known as LDL and HDL, or "bad" and "good" cholesterol.

The amount of cholesterol in the blood (both LDL and HDL) can be measured with a blood test. The recommended cholesterol level varies depending on your overall risk of developing arterial disease.

If you have high blood cholesterol, it can cause your arteries to narrow and increase your risk of developing a blood clot.

Read more about high cholesterol.

Diabetes mellitus

Diabetes is a lifelong condition that causes your blood sugar level to become too high. The two main types of diabetes are type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes.

The high blood glucose (sugar) levels associated with diabetes can damage the artery walls, making them more likely to develop fatty deposits (atheroma).

Many people with type 2 diabetes are also overweight or obese.

Lack of exercise

If you don't exercise regularly, it's more likely that you'll have high blood pressure, higher cholesterol levels, higher stress levels and be overweight. All of these are risk factors for CVD.

Exercising regularly will help keep your heart healthy. When combined with a healthy diet, exercise can also help you maintain a healthy weight.

Being overweight or obese

Being overweight or obese increases your risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure.

There are several ways a person's health can be classified in relation to their weight. The most widely used method is body mass index (BMI).

BMI is a measure of whether you're a healthy weight for your height. You can use the BMI healthy weight calculator to work out your score.

For most adults, a BMI score of:

  • less than 18.5 is underweight
  • 18.5 to 24.9 is a healthy weight
  • 25 to 29.9 is overweight
  • 30 to 39.9 is obese
  • 40 or above is severely obese

Waist circumference can also be used as an indicator of your risk of developing health problems.

Men with a waist circumference of 94cm or more (about 37 inches) and women with a waist circumference of 80cm or more (about 31.5 inches) are more likely to develop obesity-related health problems.

Read more about obesity.

Family history of heart disease

If you have a family history of CVD, your risk of also developing the condition is increased.

You're considered to have a family history of CVD if:

  • your father or brother was less than 55 years of age when diagnosed with CVD, or
  • your mother or sister was less than 65 years of age when diagnosed with CVD

Tell your doctor or nurse if you have a family history of CVD. They may want to check your blood pressure and cholesterol.

If you're over 40 years of age, you can ask your GP for a heart health check to find out your risk of getting CVD.

Read more about the NHS Health Check.

Ethnic background

Ethnicity is also a significant risk factor for developing CVD.

In the UK, coronary heart disease rates are the highest in South Asian communities.

If you're African Caribbean, your risk of having a stroke or developing high blood pressure is increased. 

Compared with the rest of the population, type 2 diabetes is also more common in African Caribbean and South Asian people.

Other risk factors

Other factors that affect your risk of developing CVD include:

  • sex – men are more likely to develop CVD at an earlier age than women
  • age – your risk of developing CVD increases with age
  • diet – a high-fat diet can cause fatty deposits to build up inside your arteries, leading to high blood cholesterol levels and high blood pressure
  • alcohol – excessive alcohol consumption can also increase your cholesterol and blood pressure
  • stress – not taking measures to reduce stress is thought to increase your risk of developing CVD

The more risk factors you have, the greater your chances of developing CVD.

It is not possible to change all your risk factors, such as your family history and ethnicity, but it's possible to reduce many risk factors and take steps to protect your heart.

Read more about preventing cardiovascular disease in adults and preventing cardiovascular disease in children.

Stop smoking

Help with quitting, including what your GP can do, local services and nicotine replacement therapies

Healthy hearts

Heart disease is the most common cause of death in the UK. Find out what to do to keep your heart fit for purpose

Page last reviewed: 15/09/2014

Next review due: 15/09/2016