When something causes an increased risk of heart and blood vessel disease, it's considered as a risk factor. Some risk factors are uncontrollable, while others are preventable or avoidable. Uncontrollable risk factors include increasing age, gender, and heredity. For example coronary heart disease, or CHD, is generally more serious for post-menopausal women. Men, on the other hand, are susceptible to heart disease at earlier ages. If heart disease runs in a family, that family's children will be at higher risk. Further, persons of African-American descent are at increased risk of heart disease. Despite these uncontrollable factors, there are numerous modifiable or avoidable risk factors that can help individuals reduce the chances of developing coronary heart disease. These controllable aspects can often be improved by personal choice or by medication. For instance, a smoker has twice the likelihood of a heart attack and resulting sudden death as compared to a nonsmoker. But even after years of smoking, a person can greatly reduce the risk of heart disease by stopping the habit, either by self-effort or with the help of various medications. High blood pressure and high levels of dietary cholesterol are also closely related to high incidences of CHD. Fortunately, both conditions usually respond well to changes in diet and exercise and occasional medications. Significant amounts of excess body fat increase blood pressure, strain on the heart, and cholesterol levels. Therefore, obesity alone is a significant risk factor for heart disease, more so when coupled with a sedentary lifestyle. Overweight people can often improve their cardiovascular health even by losing as little as 10 or 20 pounds. Plus, physically inactive persons, overweight or not, can improve their heart health by implementing a moderate exercise program. Another risk factor for CHD is diabetes mellitus (dy-ah-BEET-eez mell-I-tis). This is one reason why diabetics should keep their glucose levels in control, while monitoring and controlling all other appropriate risk factors. Finally, severe, ongoing emotional stress can be related to a person's risk for heart disease. This link may be due to the unhealthy responses employed by people under stress, such as overeating, excessive alcohol use, or smoking. In such cases, it's often possible to learn new, healthy ways to cope with stress that eliminate dependence on high-risk behaviors. If you're concerned about your risk of heart disease or have questions about your heart, contact a healthcare provider.