Dr Jarett Berry from the University of Texas and colleagues analysed data from more than 250,000 people. They found that a person's chance of having a cardiovascular event can be raised over a lifetime by small increases in risk factors.
Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers said: 'Efforts to lower the burden of CVD will require prevention of the development of risk factors, rather than the sole reliance on the treatment of existing risk factors.'
The researchers undertook a meta-analysis of data from 18 studies involving a total of 257,384 men and women who had risk factors measured at the age of 45, 55, 65 and 75 years.
The researchers stratified participants' risk into categories on the basis of their BP, cholesterol level, smoking status and whether they had diabetes.
They showed that differences in risk-factor burden translated into marked differences in lifetime risk of CVD.
'Lifetime risks tended to be very low among persons who had an optimal risk-factor profile at all index ages,' Dr Berry and his colleagues said.
'Lifetime risks became substantially higher once any risk factor level or status was not considered to be optimal, with stepwise increases in remaining lifetime risk across groups with less favourable profiles for aggregate risk.'