CHD Causes & Symptoms

A number of risk factors can increase your chance of developing coronary heart disease (CHD).

There are several that you cannot control. For instance, if heart disease runs in your family, or if you are over the age of 65, you have an increased likelihood of developing this condition. But many risk factors for CHD can be controlled with lifestyle changes, the proper medication, and medical procedures.

Lifestyle risk factors

Risk factors for coronary heart disease include these lifestyle choices:

  • Smoking is a major factor contributing to heart disease. According to the American Cancer Society, a smoker's risk of developing CHD is two to four times that of non-smokers'. Exposure to second-hand smoke can increase your risk for heart disease as well.
  • Being overweight or obese increases your risk for CHD. It also increases the risk of heart disease or diabetes, especially if you carry extra pounds around your waist. In general, women with a waistline that measures larger than 35 inches, and men with a waistline larger than 40 inches, have a high risk for heart disease.
  • Physical inactivity is a strong risk factor for CHD. It contributes to other risk factors, including obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
  • Drinking too much alcohol can contribute to a damaged heart muscle, high triglycerides, and obesity—all risk factors for CHD.
  • Stress may contribute to heart disease, though more research is needed to determine how this may happen. Researchers already know, though, that ongoing physical or emotional stress may cause people to overeat, smoke, or drink too much, increasing their risk for heart disease.

If you have any of these risk factors for CHD, there's a lot you can do to lead a healthier life. Learn more at Lifestyle Changes That May Help Prevent CHD.

Medical conditions related to coronary heart disease

Certain medical conditions can also increase your risk for CHD, including:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension): This common condition results when the force of blood against the artery walls becomes too high. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, can lead to heart disease.

    Blood pressure is made up of 2 numbers, an upper number (systolic pressure) and a lower number (diastolic pressure). Blood pressure is considered too high if it stays at or above 140/90 over a period of time.

  • High cholesterol: The plaque that can build up in your arteries contains cholesterol, a soft, fatty substance. Your body produces the cholesterol that it needs, but eating a diet high in saturated fat, being overweight, and not being physically active can all raise cholesterol to an unhealthy level.

    Certain factors such as age, medical history, and cholesterol levels determine the level of intensity in cholesterol-lowering treatment.

  • Diabetes: People with diabetes have blood sugar levels that are too high, either because they don't produce enough insulin or their body doesn't use it effectively. Having diabetes increases the risk for a heart attack or stroke.
  • Metabolic syndrome: This is the name for a group of risk factors that exist together that can increase the risk for CHD, stroke, and diabetes. These factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insulin resistance, and having an excess of body fat around the waist.

If you have any of these risk factors, it's important to talk to your doctor about whether you may have CHD. You can learn about how this condition is diagnosed by reading Diagnosing Coronary Heart Disease.

Family history

If you have a family history of heart disease, it increases your risk for developing this condition as well.That doesn't mean that there's nothing you can do about it. Making heart-healthy choices, such as eating a low-fat diet, getting regular exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight, can help you prevent or delay the onset of CHD and other types of heart disease.


Some people have no symptoms of coronary heart disease (CHD), which is why it's sometimes called a "silent" CHD. A person may not know they have this condition until they develop an arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) or heart failure, or they have a heart attack. That's why it is important to pay attention to any initial warning signals. For instance, you should talk to your doctor if you experience any symptoms that may be associated with CHD.

Common symptoms of a heart attack include Angina or chest pain or discomfort. The discomfort is commonly in the center or left side of the chest that can last a few minutes and go away and come back.

Other symptoms of a heart attack may include the following:

  • A steady pain in your shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath, which can happen at rest or during exercise
  • Sweating or a "cold sweat"
  • A feeling of fullness, indigestion, or heartburn
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Light-headedness, dizziness, or weakness

If you have symptoms of or risk factors for CHD, you can learn about how your doctor may diagnose this condition at Diagnosing CHD.

Women's symptoms may be different

More women than men die of heart disease every year. Women can develop heart disease at any age, but they're particularly at risk after menopause, when levels of estrogen–a hormone that's believed to offer some heart protection—falls off.

In women, CHD may have different symptoms than it does in men. In some cases, a woman may not recognize her symptoms and she may be misdiagnosed because she's less likely to have chest pain, the most common symptom in men. When women have CHD, their symptoms can include:

  • A hot or burning sensation in the chest or upper abdomen
  • Discomfort in the neck, upper back, or shoulder
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Unusual fatigue

If you're a woman, it's important to know the symptoms of heart disease that you may have, and seek help when it's necessary. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women. But as with men, getting promptly diagnosed and treated can make all the difference.

Not all people experiencing the symptoms mentioned on this page have CHD. However, if you have these symptoms, talk to your doctor for further evaluation.

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