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Heart Disease: Risks, Causes, Symptoms and Preventions


February is American Heart Month! It isn’t too late to make a new year’s resolution to take charge of your cardiovascular health—heart disease is one of the deadliest, and yet most common, health issues facing Americans today. The good news, however, is that you can detect it early with proactive monitoring of risk factors and even prevent it by adopting a few healthy habits.

What is heart disease?

“Heart disease” actually refers to many different types of heart conditions related to cardiovascular health and function, including:

  • Blood vessel diseases like coronary artery disease
  • Arrhythmias or other complications with heart rhythm
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Heart valve or heart muscle diseases
  • Heart infection from bacteria, viruses, or parasites

The most common variety of heart disease in the United States is coronary artery disease, or CAD, caused by plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries that supply blood to the heart. This buildup causes the artery walls to narrow over time, blocking the amount of blood supplied to the heart. Other kinds of heart disease also present difficulty with heart valves or inefficient pumping of blood to the heart.

More than 600,000 people in the United States die from heart disease every year — that’s one in four American deaths, and one victim every 36 seconds. It’s the leading cause of death in the United States across gender and racial lines.

What causes heart disease?

Some people are born with the condition, but high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and smoking are three significant risk factors that apply to 47% of Americans. An unhealthy diet rich in saturated fats, sodium and cholesterol also increase the risk for heart disease, as can excessive alcohol use and pre-existing conditions like diabetes. Women experiencing hypertension during pregnancy and delivery may be at a greater risk for developing heart disease later in life as well.

Signs and symptoms

Heart disease can be “silent,” meaning it’s possible you have it even if you don’t show any symptoms. You may not receive a diagnosis until something severe happens, so it’s important to discuss heart health with your doctor if any of these risk factors sound relevant to you. Symptoms vary depending on the type of heart disease a patient has, but chest discomfort or a heart attack could be among the first signs. A heart attack, which happens when part of the heart muscle doesn’t receive enough blood, may feel like:

  • Heavy or sharp chest pain that lasts more than a few minutes
  • Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, back, arm, or shoulder
  • Irregular heartbeat (racing or slow)
  • Indigestion, nausea, or a cold sweat
  • Weakness, light-headedness, or shortness of breath

These symptoms differ between men and women. Women are more likely to experience nausea, vomiting and fatigue along with these sharp chest pains and other discomfort in the upper body. Men are more at risk for heart disease overall, but the risk for women increases after menopause.

The more time that passes after a heart attack without treatment to restore blood flow, the greater the damage to the heart muscle. Early detection is key to recovery. Heart attacks differ from heart failure, a condition where the heart can’t pump enough blood or oxygen to support the function of other organs in your body.

What can I do?

High cholesterol and high blood pressure may be two major risk factors for heart disease, but they can be managed with diet and exercise, along with a few of these steps:

  • Know your blood pressure. Uncontrolled blood pressure often shows no symptoms and can result in heart disease, so ask your doctor about monitoring it regularly.
  • Get tested for diabetes. Sugar buildup in the blood, a result of unregulated insulin levels, can lead to heart disease. If you think you may be at risk for diabetes, ask your doctor about getting tested.
  • Check cholesterol and triglyceride levels. These “bad cholesterol” levels build up when we consume a greater amount in our diet than our cells are able to use. Blood tests can give you a clearer idea of your cholesterol levels.
  • Limit your alcohol consumption. The CDC recommends a daily limit of 2 drinks for men and 1 for women.
  • Manage your stress. How’s your mental health? Consider making an appointment with a therapist to ensure your stress levels aren’t impacting your day-to-day life.

See a doctor immediately if you experience chest pain, shortness of breath, or fainting — any of these symptoms could be a sign of heart disease.

Staying healthy at home

The doctor’s office isn’t the only place where you can monitor your risk factors for heart disease. Plenty of technology places your health information at your fingertips.

  • Pedometers can help you keep track of your step count – try getting 10,000 per day! If you have an iPhone, your Health app may keep track of your steps already.
  • Blood pressure monitors and heart rate monitors are available for home purchase as well.
  • MyFitnessPal, a free app available for Android and iOS, can help you track your diet and nutrition and set daily limits for risk factors like sodium and cholesterol.
  • Activity tracker apps like MapMyRun or Strava, which feature walk, bike, run, and other exercise features, provide detailed breakdowns of exercise sessions. You can even team up with friends, share routes and link app details to your smartphone’s Health apps.

Happy American Heart Month from Riverside Medical Clinic, and as always, reach out to your doctor if you think you or a loved one may be at risk for heart disease.