Heart disease, also known as cardiovascular disease, refers to several conditions of the heart and diseases that attack the heart and circulatory system, including coronary artery disease, heart attack, heart failure, heart valve problems and arrhythmias.
Reduced blood flow to the heart caused by thickened and hardened arteries as well as fatty plaque buildup in the arteries causes heart disease. This buildup narrows the arteries making it more difficult for the heart to pump blood. Subsequent blood clots can cause heart attack, and clogged or burst blood vessels can cause stroke.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death in men and women in the United States. One in every four deaths is caused by heart disease. In women, heart disease kills one in every three and kills more women than all cancers combined. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is more fatal to women than breast cancer, and nearly two-thirds of women who die of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms.
In the United States, February is recognized as American Heart Month. On the first Friday of February each year, men and women wear red to show their support for heart disease research on National Wear Red Day. The American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign encourages increased education about and prevention of heart disease in women across the country.
Heart Disease Symptoms
The most obvious and fatal sign and symptom of heart disease is heart attack, and it is often the first symptom caused by the disease. Heart attack occurs when blood flow is cut off from the heart. The longer blood is cut off from the heart, the more damage caused, which is why it is important to recognize symptoms of heart attack and act on them immediately.
According to the National Heart Attack Alert Program, created by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in 1991, the following are major symptoms of a heart attack:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Upper body discomfort, including in the arms, back, neck and jaw
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweat, nausea and lightheadedness
In men and women, the most common symptom of heart attack is chest pain, but women are also more likely to experience shortness of breath, nausea and jaw or back pain, which are often misdiagnosed as symptoms of menstruation or the flu. The American Heart Association recommends that women be aware symptoms, such as not being able to catch their breath or being overly tired, and not dismiss them.
In men, specifically, another emerging sign of heart disease is erectile dysfunction.
Stroke, also caused by heart disease, has different symptoms than heart attack, including:
- Numbness in the face, arm or leg (on one side of the body)
- Confusion and difficulty understanding
- Severe headache
- Blurred vision
- Loss of balance and coordination
Heart attack symptoms can come and go throughout the day, especially with chest pains. However, all stroke symptoms occur suddenly. Once you recognize a symptom of stroke, you should call 911 immediately. According the American Heart Association, the EMT or ER nurse will need to know when the first symptom occurred so be sure to have someone check the time.
If you notice signs and symptoms of heart attack or stroke in yourself or someone else, do not wait to act. Call 911 immediately.
Note: Not all forms of heart disease immediately cause heart attack or stroke. For example, in congenital heart defects, symptoms include pale, graying skin and swelling in the legs, abdomen and eyes. Arrhythmia, another form of heart disease caused by abnormal heartbeat, can be signified by racing or slow heartbeat or fluttering in the chest. Symptoms of cardiomyopathy, caused by a thick heart muscle, include breathlessness, swollen legs and bloating.
Heart Disease Causes
A combination of physical conditions, genetics and lifestyle choices cause heart disease.
Physical conditions and aliments, such as having high blood pressure, can lead to heart disease. Another example of a physical condition is excess cholesterol in the body, which causes the arteries to thicken and harden. High LDL cholesterol also causes fatty plaque buildup in the arteries reducing blood flow and increasing the chance of getting blood clots. Diabetes is another risk factor for heart disease because the body cannot produce enough or properly use its insulin to reduce blood sugar.
Congenital heart disease is both a physical and genetic condition, and it is caused by abnormalities in the cardiovascular system occurring before birth or by trauma just after birth. Heart disease that is not congenital might also be hereditary.
Lifestyle risk factors associated with increased risk for heart disease include:
- Tobacco use
- Excessive consumption of alcohol
- Poor diet
- Physical inactivity
Each of the above listed lifestyle risk factors for heart disease increase the chance of thickening and hardening of the arteries, blood clots, high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke, among other conditions. Making inappropriate lifestyle choices coupled with physical and genetic risk factors for heart disease increases a person’s risk of suffering heart attack and stroke.
Heart Disease Treatment
Call 911 for heart attack and stroke victims as soon as signs and symptoms are apparent.
Heart disease medications focus on treating risk factors associated with physical conditions and ailments in order to reduce the likelihood that an individual will suffer heart attack or stroke, or other damage to his or her heart and circulatory system. For example, an aspirin regimen might be recommended to individuals who have already suffered from a heart attack. Other medication can lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
Some forms of heart disease, such as heart failure, cannot be treated or managed with medication and require surgical procedures. For example, if an individual suffers from complete heart failure, a transplant heart is required for the person to live.
Cardiac rehabilitation is another treatment option that can increase the wellness of individuals who have heart disease. Cardiac rehabilitation teaches individuals with heart disease how to eat heart healthy meals and how to exercise without putting unnecessary strain on the heart.
Heart disease treatments also require that an individual with heart disease make healthy changes to his or her lifestyle, such as making changes to diet and exercises routines.
Lifestyle changes required to treat heart disease include:
- Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, especially high in fruits and vegetables
- Getting a healthy form of physical activity
- Quitting smoking
- Moderating consumption of alcohol
Alternative treatments for heart disease also include making lifestyle changes, such as stopping smoking, managing stress and staying away from others when they are sick.
Alternative medicines and supplements include blond psyllium, coenzyme Q10, flaxseed, oats, omega-3 fatty acids, beta-sitosterol and sitostanol.
While alternative and home health treatments are available for heart disease, a regular meeting with a doctor is recommended to manage the disease.
The American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign also recommends meditation and relaxation in order to reduce stress on the mind and on the heart. Learning how to manage stress and cope with stressful situations can reduce the chances of heart attack or stroke.
Heart Disease Prevention
Heart disease prevention focuses on making healthy lifestyle choices, especially within individuals who have physical conditions and ailments and a genetic predisposition to heart disease.
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet and getting regular exercise cannot only reduce the risk factors associated with heart disease, but can also prevent certain types of heart disease. A nutritious diet low in saturated fat and sodium coupled with 30 minutes of daily exercise can lower blood pressure and cholesterol, which will, in turn, reduce the chances of an individual having a heart attack or stroke.
Quitting smoking and reducing the consumption of alcohol will also help prevent heart disease.
Heart Disease Resources
National Institutes of Health http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/hdw/
American Heart Association http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/
Mended Hearts http://mendedhearts.org/
Go Red for Women http://www.goredforwomen.org/home/about-heart-disease-in-women/