Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize they’re suffering from the condition until it’s too late. To prevent heart disease, you should understand the risk factors, be able to identify potential symptoms and make positive lifestyle changes that lead to a healthier heart.
Here, we’ll dive deep into all-things-heart disease, from the many types of conditions to their diagnosis and treatment methods.
How Serious Is Heart Disease in the U.S.?
One person dies every 36 seconds from heart disease in America. That accounts for one in every four deaths, or for 655,000 people, per year. Forty-eight percent of adults in America have some form of heart disease, but at least 80 percent of these conditions are preventable. The most common preventable factors include obesity, smoking, inactivity and a poor diet.
Types of Heart Disease
When we hear “heart disease,” we usually think of coronary artery disease — the most common type of heart disease that causes blockage problems. However, there is a broad spectrum of conditions that fall into the heart disease category, including the following:
Cardiomyopathies are diseases that weaken the heart muscle and affect how it pumps. This may lead to congestive heart failure. Symptoms can include shortness of breath, decrease in exercise tolerance or leg swelling.
Arrhythmia affects how the electrical circuits within our hearts function. Whenever there’s a glitch in that circuit, arrhythmia will occur. One common type of arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation, where patients have palpitations, feel lightheaded or faint.
Valvular Heart Disease is any disease that affects our four heart valves — most commonly the aortic and mitral valves.
Heart Infections occur when bacteria in the bloodstream travels to the heart and cause an infection.
Congenital Heart Disease is any malformation of the heart that is present at birth. These often go undetected and are diagnosed later in life.
Coronary Artery Disease, as mentioned before, is the most common heart problem Americans face. This disease blocks the arteries, or “plumbing system” of our hearts with plaque buildup (also known as atherosclerosis), limiting blood flow and oxygen to the heart. This can overwork the arteries, causing them to eventually burst. While men usually show symptoms of chest pain, women are more likely to experience dizziness, vomiting and shortness of breath.
The process of atherosclerosis can be accelerated by the following risk factors for heart disease:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Physical inactivity
- Advanced age
- Family history of coronary artery disease
Diagnosing Heart Disease
Now, let’s move on to the diagnosis. If you fall under any combination of the categories listed above, talk to your doctor. They will gather a comprehensive history of your heart, ask you questions about your symptoms and inspect your heart’s valves and vessels. Sometimes, that alone is enough to diagnose underlying heart disease.
If not, the doctor may conduct an EKG (electrocardiogram) or an ultrasound of the heart (echocardiography). More in-depth diagnostic imaging tools include cardiac CTs and cardiac MRIs. Your doctor may also perform stress testing to determine your heart’s strength, depending on your ability to exercise.
As a last resort, doctors may use invasive procedures like cardiac catheterization or coronary angiography to form a diagnosis. Here, the cardiologist will put catheters in your heart, inject a dye and take X-rays to visualize your arteries while searching for plaque buildup.
Treating Heart Disease
Doctors follow this step-by-step treatment process to be as minimally invasive as possible:
- Lifestyle modification: Your doctor will suggest that you eat healthier, exercise more, quit smoking, consume less salt and monitor your blood pressure at home.
- Medications: Your doctor may prescribe lipid or blood pressure-lowering medications, or suggest anti-platelet agents like Aspirin.
- Minor Surgery: Your cardiologist will place a stent in your arteries to open up the blockage.
- Major Surgery: In some situations, a stent won’t work, and you may need more invasive surgery. Here, you’ll be referred to a cardiac surgeon for open-heart bypass surgery.
Your primary care doctor’s goal is to prevent you from seeing an interventional cardiologist or heart surgeon through the first two steps of treatment.
How to Prevent Heart Disease: Controllable Factors
To fight heart disease in its early stages, or better yet, prevent heart disease altogether, keep these six lifestyle factors in mind. More than 80 percent of heart disease cases are preventable.
Are you doing what you can to live a longer life?
One of the most critical controllable risk factors for heart disease is diet. Avoid sugar, salt, saturated fats and refined carbs, as these foods raise your chances of having a heart attack or stroke.
What should you eat, instead? The Mediterranean diet has been proven to lead to healthier hearts.
This diet includes:
- A variety of fruits and vegetables daily
- Healthy, monounsaturated fats (olive oil, avocados, nuts)
- Protein in the form of seafood and fish
- Whole grains (not refined carbohydrates)
- A small amount of red wine
Yes, you read that last bullet point correctly. Small amounts of red wine and other alcoholic drinks have proven to help your heart but indulging in more than six drinks per week can have adverse effects.
The type of alcohol doesn’t matter as long as you are limiting your intake. Also, avoid binge drinking — if you don’t drink during the week, you shouldn’t have your allotted six drinks all at once on Sunday.
Inactivity is another major preventable contributor to heart disease. All exercise is good exercise, as long as your heart rate elevates daily. Experts suggest getting 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week, which includes running, jumping rope and hiking uphill. If this doesn’t sound realistic for you, try 150 minutes of moderate exercise like jogging, biking or hiking on a flat surface. For those who are just beginning their exercise journey, walking briskly for just 20 minutes per day can yield great results.
Smoking increases your heart rate and blood pressure, affects your lipid metabolism and plays a large role in accelerating plaque buildup. Avoiding it in all forms is one of the best ways to prevent heart disease.
No amount of smoking is safe, but it is use-dependent. That means the more you smoke and the longer you smoke for, the higher your risk of heart disease. Even a couple of cigarettes per day can increase your risk by up to 50 percent, so it’s best to avoid this habit entirely or quit immediately if you already smoke.
Anger, stress and anxiety can raise your heart rate and blood pressure levels significantly. This has been a stressful year for us all, but hopefully, you have found stress reducers that work best for you — whether it’s reading, spending time with family, exercising, meditating, gardening or petting the dog. Keep in mind that stress-induced heart attacks are more common in people with Type A personalities.
Broken Heart Syndrome, or stress cardiomyopathy, is another stress-induced heart condition. This is when catastrophic social stress causes a transient dysfunction in the heart that mimics a heart attack.
Adults over 25 should get bloodwork screenings for high blood pressure and cholesterol at least once per year. This will ensure that you are taking the correct measures to keep your heart healthy before the problems become too severe.
If you eat healthy, exercise often, minimize smoking and drinking, practice stress management and visit your doctor regularly, you can prevent heart disease in many forms and live a longer, healthier life.