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Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors

Risk factors for cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) are classified as nonmodifiable or modifiable. Nonmodifiable risk factors cannot be controlled. These include gender, race, family history and advancing age. Risk factors that can be controlled, or changed, are called modifiable. The more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance of heart disease and stroke. Major modifiable risk factors are: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, obesity, physical inactivity and poor nutrition. Data on risk factors are collected through the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). The BRFSS is a state-based, random-digit-dialed telephone survey. According to results from the 2003-2004 BRFSS surveys, Illinois and the United States had similar rates for all risk factors (Figure 1). 

Figure 1: CVD Risk Factors ( Illinois and U.S.)


High Cholesterol

As blood cholesterol levels rise, so does the risk for cardiovascular disease. Too much LDL cholesterol clogs arteries, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.*

According to the 2003 Illinois BRFSS results, more than 2.3 million adults in Illinois have high cholesterol levels. Almost 46 percent of all adults

with less than a high school education have high cholesterol levels compared to 30 percent of college graduates. Likewise, as the income level increases, the proportion of those with high cholesterol decreases. For adults with an annual household income of less than $15,000, approximately 38.2 percent reported high cholesterol, compared to 30.9 percent of those with annual household incomes greater than $50,000.

High Blood Pressure

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is the chronic state of elevated pressure in the arteries. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease, congestive heart failure, stroke, impaired vision and kidney disease. Generally, the higher the blood pressure, the greater the risk.**

Results from the 2003 Illinois BRFSS indicate that approximately 2.4 million adults in the state have high blood pressure. Rates of high blood pressure increase with age. While there is little difference by race, the prevalence of high blood pressure rates among non-Hispanics is 81 percent higher than among Hispanics.


Cigarette smoking is a major cause of coronary heart disease and is a major risk factor for sudden death from heart attack. Cigarette smoking also almost doubles a person’s risk for stroke. According to results from the 2004 Illinois BRFSS, 2 million adults in Illinois currently smoke cigarettes. As age increases, smoking rates decrease. While 31 percent of adults ages 18-24 years are current smokers, this decreases to 26 percent for adults ages 25-44 years, 20 percent for those 45-64 years of age, and 9 percent for adults 65 years and older. A larger proportion of males (26.2 percent) are current smokers compared to females (18.6 percent). The prevalence of cigarette smoking is 36.7 percent for those who did not graduate from high school, compared to only 13.4 percent for college graduates.


People with diabetes, due to the many complications caused by this disease, suffer greater morbidity and mortality than the general population.*** Heart disease and stroke are the most common causes of morbidity and mortality among people with diabetes.****

The 2003 Illinois BRFSS estimates that more than half a million people in Illinois have diabetes. Prevalence of diabetes is highest among those 45 years and older, those in lower income groups, and those with low education levels. Little difference in diabetes prevalence rates exists between race and ethnic groups.


Obesity, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, is associated with many other risk factors including high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, and is usually the result or poor nutrition and lack of adequate physical activity.

According to the 2003 Illinois BRFSS, almost 2 million Illinois adults are obese. The prevalence of obesity increases from 12.4 percent among ages 18-24 to 26.7 percent for the 45-64 year age group before declining to 18.7 percent for those persons 65 years of age and older. Obesity rates for non-whites are 20.8 percent higher than those for whites. Obesity rates vary with educational level. The prevalence rate of obesity for those without a high school degree is the highest, at 28.1 percent followed by those with some college (26.3 percent), high school graduates (22.7 percent), and, finally, those with a college degree (16.7 percent).

* Gordon, T.; Kannel, W.B.; Castelli, W.P.; Dawber, T.R. Lipoproteins, Cardiovascular Disease, and Death. The Framingham Study. Arch Intern Med. 1981; 141:1128-31
** Hennekens, C.H.; Satterfield, S.; Hebert, P.R. Treatment of Elevated Blood Pressure to Prevent Coronary Heart Disease. Trends in Coronary Heart Disease Mortality; The Influence of Medical Care. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press Inc.; 1988: 103-108.
*** Barrett-Connor, E.; Orchard, T. Diabetes and heart disease. In: Diabetes in America: Diabetes Data Compiled 1984. Bethesda, Md.: United States Dept. of Health and Human Services; 1985: XVI1-XVI41. NIH Publication 85-1468.
**** National Research Council. Diet and Health: Implications for Reducing Chronic Disease Risk. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press; 1989.

Warning Signs

Heart Attack
  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath along with, or before, chest discomfort
  • Cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness

For Women

As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.


  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause
Call 911if you have any of these symptoms or if you see someone else experiencing these warning signs. Treatment is more effective if given quickly. Every minute counts!

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