James Gandolfini's Death Highlights Heart Risks

The sudden death of actor James Gandolfini has put the spotlight on heart disease and its many risk factors.

Gandolfini died Wednesday from cardiac arrest after being rushed to a hospital from the Rome hotel where he was vacationing with his 13-year-old son. The 51-year-old "Sopranos" star also leaves behind his wife and an 8-month-old daughter.

An autopsy set for Friday will determine whether the cardiac arrest resulted from a heart attack - a blood vessel blockage that destroys the heart muscle.

See pictures of James Gandolfini through the years.

Several conditions, behaviors and hereditary factors can boost the risk of heart disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, smoking, excessive alcohol use and having a family history of heart disease.

"Your risk is increased if you have a family member who had a heart attack younger than 55 for men, 65 for women," said ABC News' chief health and medical editor, Dr. Richard Besser.

People with excessive fat around the waist line, creating an "apple-shape" body, are particularly prone to heart disease, according to the National Institutes of Health.

"Just this week, the American Medical Association brought attention to the issue of obesity, voting to classify it as a disease," said Besser. "This is in part to draw attention to the role obesity plays as a risk factor for heart disease."

Although Gandolfini's specific heart disease risk factors were unclear, the actor was overweight and carried much of the excess fat around his middle.

Read about the AMA declaring obesity a disease.

Besser stressed that there are ways to reduce your risk of heart disease.

"If you're overweight, look at small changes in your diet that can add up to lots of pounds lost over time," he said. "First step: get rid of the sodas, juices and sports drinks."

"If you smoke, get help to stop," he added. "And look into ways that you can increase movement in your life. Any little bit you do can make a difference."

Knowing your cholesterol levels and blood pressure can help you take steps to keep them in line, Besser said, and knowing your family history can help you understand your risk, even though "you can't change your genes."

Find out more about easy ways to protect your heart.

Fans and friends are paying tribute to Gandolfini today. His on-screen wife, Edie Falco, remembered the "man of tremendous depth and sensitivity" who "treated us all like family with a generosity, loyalty and compassion that is rare in this world."

"Hopefully it's a call to action," said Besser, "in his name or not, to do something about your life to improve your health."

James Gandolfini, 51, died from cardiac arrest. (Image credit: Jim Spellman/WireImage/Getty Images)