We started off American Heart Month with 10 Ways to Help Keep Your Heart Healthy, and we are continuing the topic of heart health with the most important reason why you want to keep it healthy; to prevent heart and cardiovascular disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for around a quarter of all deaths. This remains true for most groups of people regardless of sex, race, or ethnicity. There are several different forms of heart disease. We will talk about a few of the most prominent ones, as well as their risk factors and warning signs.
The CDC reports that around 47% of Americans have one of the 3 biggest risk factors for heart disease. These risk factors are high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and smoking. Smoking damages the arteries and blood vessels, weakening them so that they are more vulnerable. High cholesterol is one of the main risk factors because when we have too much bad cholesterol, it ends up being deposited along the walls of our arteries, which is why most buildups of plaque are made up of cholesterol. High blood pressure is when the force of the blood exerts on your artery walls is too high, possibly causing damage to heart, or even other organs like the kidneys.
Like most chronic conditions, our risk is also affected by uncontrollable factors like our age and our genetics, as well as controllable ones like our lifestyles, activity levels, and diet. Other chronic conditions like diabetes and obesity can greatly increase your risk of developing heart disease, as well as increasing your likelihood of having other risk factors. Diabetes can double the chances of developing a heart condition by weakening the blood vessels and nerves that service the heart and cardiovascular system. Being obese means that the body will need more blood to keep it supplied, and the heart will have to work harder to keep up, heightening blood pressure and strain on the heart. Obesity can also contribute to arteries becoming blocked because like cholesterol, fat can build up and form plaque. Someone that is obese or diabetic is much more likely to have other chronic conditions that also increase the risk of heart disease.
Common Signs and Symptoms
Many heart diseases share similar symptoms. Pain or discomfort in the chest, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, light-headedness, a faster heart rate, and fatigue. Some signs are more prevalent in men or women. Women are more likely to experience nausea and shortness of breath, while men are more likely to experience chest pains.
The serious symptoms of chest pain and shortness of breath should not be ignored, and one should seek medical attention if they appear. With a heart attack, the symptoms may be more severe than the regular signs of heart disease, such as more extreme fatigue and shortness of breath that may give a choking feeling. Knowing and recognizing these signs can be vital to preventing a major cardiac event, or even saving the life of yourself or another when one occurs.
Coronary Artery Disease
The coronary arteries are responsible for carrying oxygen rich blood to the heart. These arteries can become damaged or blocked, limiting the supply of blood that is reaching the heart and resulting in what we call Atherosclerosis, or Coronary Artery Disease (CAD). This is the most common form of heart disease, and it can lead to fatal complications.
CAD is most commonly caused by blockages in the arteries that are usually caused by deposits of plaque that build up on the walls of the arteries, causing hardening that narrows the pathway. The problem may also be caused by damage to the arteries and blood vessels. When this happens, the arteries may not respond to the heart’s commands, and not widen to increase blood flow when it is necessary, like during times of physical exertion or high stress.
Since it takes time for a plaque buildup to occur in the arteries, it can be a long time before symptoms begin to show themselves. Once they do it is very important that you have them checked out by a doctor, or seek emergency medical attention if necessary as sometimes there will be no signs or symptoms at all, until it reaches the point of a heart attack.
Eventually, a plaque buildup can rupture and cause a blood clot to form, heavily restricting or completely shutting off the blood flow in the artery. The heart muscle will then begin to die due to the lack of oxygen, leaving permanently damaged tissue in its place. Heart attacks can also occur due to spasms in the coronary artery, and it is possible for these to occur even if you don’t have a condition like CAD. Luckily, heart attacks caused by spasms are very rare.
Today, the survival rate for a heart attack is around 90%, and many of the fatal occurrences could be prevented by not ignoring the signs and symptoms. As stated above, feeling pain, pressure, and tightness in the chest is the tell tale sign of a heart attack. Normally this is concentrated in the middle and left side of the chest, but the discomfort may also be experienced in the jaw, throat, back, or arm. Despite the severity of heart attack symptoms, around 1 in every 5 heart attacks are silent, meaning no symptoms occur, and you may be completely oblivious to the fact that you even had one. These silent heart attacks are still very dangerous, and they still damage the heart muscles and increase the risk of having another cardiac event.
A stroke is a cardiovascular disease very similar to a heart attack, except instead of a blockage occuring to the heart, it occurs in the brain. Most of the time it is caused by an artery that is blocked, but it can also be caused by a burst blood vessel. When this happens the brain doesn’t get the oxygen it needs and the brain cells begin to die, just like the heart muscle during a heart attack. This means that part of the brain will not function properly, leading to long term complications, and sometimes it can even be fatal. Stroke is the most common cause of disability in the United States, often impairing one’s mobility, communication ability, and other cognitive functions.
Symptoms can occur quickly and without warning, so it is important to know what to look for both for yourself or if you know someone who may be at risk. When a stroke occurs, it can cause different parts of the body to go numb, normally this is concentrated on one side of the body. A severe headache may also occur, possibly even out of nowhere. Other symptoms include dizziness, confusion, difficulty speaking, difficulty understanding others, vision impairment, and loss of balance or coordination.
As always, prevention is the best way to combat any chronic condition, especially heart disease since it is the leading cause of death.. Some steps you can take to prevent cardiovascular and heart disease include:
- Eating a healthy diet, especially one that is low sodium, low sugar, and high in fiber
- Getting 75 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise each week.
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Getting 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night
- Limiting alcohol consumption to no more than 1 to 2 drinks per day, but less than that is even better.
- Quitting smoking or not starting to begin with
It can’t be overstated how important keeping your heart healthy is. It truly is one of the absolute most important things you can do to improve your long term health and extend the length of your life, if not the most important. Keeping track of everything that affects your heart can be difficult. At Ways2Well we make it easy, by using blood testing to measure your levels of cholesterol, blood sugar, and more that contribute to the risk of heart disease, and giving you the best chance of preventing it.