One of the most sobering statistics about heart disease is that one person dies from it every 37 seconds. This statistic, provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is just one of many that point to heart disease as the leading cause of death for Americans, across gender, race, and ethnic demographics. What it equates to is nearly 650,000 people dying every year from a disease that, for most people, is largely preventable.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease is often referred to interchangeably as cardiovascular disease. It is a class of diseases that involves the heart or blood vessels. There are numerous types of heart disease that each have their own causes, symptoms, and treatment options. Some of the most common types are as follows:
- Coronary artery disease (CAD): Also known as coronary heart disease (CHD) or ischemic heart disease (IHD), it is characterized by a buildup of plaque in the arteries that results in reduced blood flow to the heart. Types of CAD include angina (chest pressure/pain) and myocardial infarction (heart attack).
- Cardiac arrhythmia: This is a group of conditions defined by the heart beating irregularly, usually either too fast (tachycardia) or too slow (bradycardia).
- Stroke: A stroke is a medical event that involves poor blood flow to the brain resulting in cell death, either because of lack of blood flow or bleeding. Even a temporary reduction in blood flow can have a devastating effect on the brain.
- Heart failure: Also referred to as congestive heart failure (CHF), heart failure is when the heart is no longer able to maintain sufficient blood flow to meet the body’s needs. There are numerous potential causes of heart failure, including coronary artery disease or some of the other types.
- Hypertensive heart disease: This is a general term for heart conditions that are related to high blood pressure (hypertension). In situations where, for whatever reason, the heart is forced to work under increased blood pressure, various problems can result.
- Rheumatic heart disease: Typically an outworking of rheumatic fever, this condition involves damage to heart valves as a result of inflammation. Somewhat surprisingly, this type of heart disease comes about after someone has had a strep throat infection.
- Peripheral artery disease (PAD): Whereas many other types of heart disease are related to blood flow problems to the heart or brain, peripheral artery disease is a narrowing of other types of arteries. It most often affects the legs.
Who is at risk for heart disease?
Even though heart disease encompasses a wide range of related conditions, the risk factors are essentially the same for all. Lifestyle, age, and family history are all factors that can increase one’s risk, and obviously, two of those (age and family history) can’t be controlled. However, there are several factors related to lifestyle that can be controlled through healthy living habits:
- Blood pressure: Having high blood pressure is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease because it forces the heart to work harder in adverse conditions. Even beyond the direct effect on the heart, high blood pressure can negatively affect other organs such as the kidneys, liver, and brain.
- A diet high in trans fat, saturated fat, and sodium can all lead to high blood pressure.
- Drinking excessive alcohol can also lead to higher blood pressure.
- Insufficient physical activity can also lead to high blood pressure.
- Blood cholesterol: Cholesterol is a substance that is needed by the body (it is a major component of cell membranes, for example) and that the body actually synthesizes in sufficient quantities. But when too much dietary cholesterol is ingested, it moves into the bloodstream and can begin to build up along the walls of the arteries. This buildup can lead to narrowing of the arteries and subsequently reduced blood flow to the heart, brain, and other organs.
- A diet high in cholesterol and fat will lead to higher blood cholesterol.
- Similar to blood pressure, insufficient physical activity can also be a factor in high cholesterol.
- Smoking: Smoking tobacco is an all-around bad habit; it can damage arteries and the heart as well as reduce the amount of oxygen the blood can carry around the body. Additionally, the nicotine in tobacco can raise blood pressure. The net effect of smoking is that the body will be much more prone to any number of heart-related diseases.
- Exposure to secondhand smoke can also increase the risk of heart disease.
The CDC estimates that nearly half of all Americans have at least one of the three lifestyle factors listed above, and it can be attributed in large part to the Western-style eating and exercise (or lack thereof) habits Americans are accustomed to. Heart disease in the United States is a much more significant problem than in virtually all other high-income, industrialized nations.
In addition to these lifestyle factors, there are several medical conditions that also are strongly correlated with heart disease, and one of the biggest examples is diabetes. In diabetic patients, the body doesn’t produce enough insulin to regulate blood glucose levels. As a result, glucose can build up in the blood, and over time that additional glucose can damage arteries and the nerves that control the cardiovascular system.
What can prevent heart disease?
Some people are genetically predisposed to be at a higher risk for heart disease, and generally the risk goes up as people get older. But even for those who are at higher risk just by virtue of age or history, there are still many different actions that can be taken to make heart disease much less likely.
Diet: One of the central elements of the Western lifestyle that can lead to heart disease is an unhealthy diet. Americans, in particular, are prone to eating a diet high in fat that is marked by fast food and lots of sugar. Instead, make sure your diet includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, fish, nuts, and legumes. The American Heart Association has excellent recommendations for a heart-healthy diet.
Exercise: A lack of physical activity is another key factor that can lead to heart disease as well as a variety of other health problems. The CDC (and the American Heart Association) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week (biking or brisk walking are two examples) in order to maintain a healthy heart and keep blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugar at appropriate levels.
Alcohol and Tobacco: As noted earlier, drinking and smoking can both greatly increase the risk of heart disease. Smoking should be avoided completely, but moderate drinking (no more than 1 drink per day) can be acceptable, all else being equal. However, those who may be genetically predisposed may have to curtail drinking even further.
Will heart disease go away on its own?
If someone already has heart disease, they need to make immediate life changes in order to avert disaster. The good news is that the methods for improving one’s health are essentially the same as preventing it in the first place: it requires substantial changes to diet and exercise, but it also often includes finding ways to reduce stress in life. With hard work and determination, some of the damage inherent in heart disease can actually be reversed.
For those who have already had a cardiac episode, such as a heart attack or stroke, the situation may require more extreme measures. Apart from any specific procedure used to counteract a cardiac episode (like bypass surgery in the case of a heart attack), doctors may put the patient on a program of cardiac rehabilitation. This kind of program is supervised by healthcare professionals and typically involves education and training in exercise, healthy living, diet, and the reduction of stress.
Talk With Your Doctor As the leading killer of Americans each year, heart disease can’t be taken lightly. Indeed, it is the ignoring of key lifestyle decisions that often lead to heart disease and dire consequences. While heart disease is sometimes thought of as affecting men more, the truth is that women are just as likely to be affected. If you would like to talk with a doctor to learn more about heart disease and how to ensure your heart health is good, contact The Woman’s Clinic to make an appointment.