Heart disease and stroke: Understand your risk


Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, causing 1 in 5 — or 695,000 — deaths each year. Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death. Both are more likely to occur if you have one of three specific risk factors, detailed below.

Risk factors for heart disease and stroke

1. High blood pressure

Blood pressure is the force it takes for blood to travel away from your heart, through your arteries, and to other organs. It is measured by two numbers:

Systolic blood pressure is the top number, which represents the pressure generated when your heart beats.

Diastolic blood pressure is the bottom number, which represents the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart rests between beats.

Blood pressure guidelines:

  • Normal: Below 120 mmHG / 80 mmHG
  • Elevated: 120-129 mmHG / 80 mmHG
  • Stage 1 hypertension: 130-139 mmHG / 80-89 mmHG
  • Stage 2 hypertension: Above 140 mmHG / above 90 mmHG

2. High cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is made in your liver and travels throughout your blood stream on what are known as lipoproteins. There are two types:

  • Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) = “Bad” cholesterol“Bad” cholesterol creates fatty buildups on the walls of your blood vessels that can make it difficult for blood to travel to and from your heart. Optimal: less than 100 mg/dL
  • High-density lipoproteins (HDL) = “Good” cholesterol“Good” cholesterol removes LDL cholesterol away from blood vessels and sends it back toward the liver, where it is broken down and removed from the body. Optimal: greater than 50 mg/dL

We treat heart and cardiovascular conditions with advanced techniques and excellent outcome rates.

Get Heart & Cardiovascular Services at UCLA Health

How to measure cholesterol

A lipid panel is blood test that measures LDL, HDL and triglycerides, which are the free-floating fats in your blood stream. Optimal: less than 150 mg/dL

Additional risk factors

  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Poor diet
  • Physical inactivity
  • Excessive alcohol use

Calculate your risk

Your cardiologist or primary care physician can assess your 10-year risk of having a heart attack or stroke by calculating your Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease (ASCVD) risk score, or you can calculate your score online at tools.acc.org/ASCVD-Risk-Estimator-Plus

  • Over 20% = High risk
  • 7.5% to 19.9% = Intermediate risk
  • 5% to 7.4% = Borderline risk
  • Under 5% = Low risk

If you have questions or need help calculating your risk for a heart attack or stroke, reach out to your primary care physician or set up an appointment with a cardiologist. 

Take the Next Step

Learn more at uclahealth.org/heart.