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Heart disease and stroke: Know your risk factors

Heart disease and stroke are the second and third leading causes of death in Canada. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, 9 in 10 Canadians have at least one risk factor, and almost 8 in 10 cases of premature heart disease and stroke are preventable through healthier lifestyle, such as not smoking, eating well and exercising.

Know your risk factors

"Learning your risk factors is key to preventing and reducing your risk of heart disease and stroke," says Jennifer Price, advanced practice nurse, cardiology, Women’s Cardiovascular Health Initiative at Women’s College Hospital (WCH). "There are some risk factors that can’t be controlled, such as age, but many of them can be controlled and women can reduce their risks by making heart-friendly changes in their lives."

Price says cardiovascular risk factors and can be divided into two categories: traditional, such as inactivity or smoking, and non-traditional, including some that are specific to women, such as hypertension in pregnancy.

Traditional risk factors

  • Smoking
    "Not smoking is one of the most important things you can do to protect your health from many, many causes," says Price. "If you smoke, quit. If you don’t smoke, don’t start."
  • Physical inactivity
    "Inactivity doubles your risk of heart disease and stroke," says Price. Cardiovascular exercise, such as walking or swimming, benefits your overall health in many ways, and is one of the most powerful remedies for a major heart risk.
  • Obesity
    Obesity significantly increases your chances of heart disease, so Price recommends speaking with your healthcare provider if you’re struggling with reaching a healthy weight.
  • Diabetes
    "People with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease, so know your blood sugar numbers and your family history," Price says.
  • High blood pressure & high cholesterol
    "Hypertension is the number one risk factor for stroke and a major risk factor for heart disease," says Price. People with high cholesterol are also more likely to develop cardiac issues. Price recommends having your blood pressure and cholesterol checked regularly by your healthcare provider.
  • Menopause
    "Women are fairly well protected from cardiac disease before menopause," says Price. "Once women go through menopause, they’re more likely to gain weight, their blood pressure and cholesterol goes up and the change in hormones increases their risk of heart disease."
  • Age
    "Cardiac disease is a disease of aging," says Price. "The older we get, the more likely we are to get cardiac disease."

Additional risk factors include stress, heritage, family history, poor sleep and other personal circumstances.

Non-traditional risk factors

  • Hypertension in pregnancy or gestational diabetes
    "Pregnancy is the first heart health stress test that women undergo," says Price. "During pregnancy women can develop high blood pressure or diabetes, which is a risk factor for early onset coronary artery disease."
  • Cancer
    "Certain types of chemotherapy or radiation may increase your risk of heart problems," says Price. "Speak with your physician about screening following treatment for cancer, to see if you’re in higher risk category or not."
  • Inflammatory arthritis
    "We know that people with inflammatory arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis, have a higher risk of developing heart disease. If you have inflammatory arthritis, ask your doctor to also get screened for heart disease."

What can you do to protect yourself from heart disease?

A healthy lifestyle can significantly lower your risk of heart disease and help maintain a healthy heart. Positive habits that can help reduce risks include regular exercise; healthy blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose levels; healthy weight, especially around the waist; not smoking; good nutrition and stress management.

Cardiac rehabilitation, such as through Women’s Cardiovascular Health Initiative at WCH, is recommended for women living with or at high risk of developing heart disease. For more resources on preventing heart disease, visit our online Heart Health Centre.


Statistics Canada Health Fact Sheets, The 10 leading causes of death, 2013: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-625-x/2017001/article/14776-eng.htm

Heart and Stroke Foundation: https://www.heartandstroke.ca/heart/risk-and-prevention


This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: Jan. 18, 2019.

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  • Women's College Hospital