Heart Disease: Understanding and Preventing It

Written by Anna Kucirkova

The human heart is an intriguing organ.

It’s the first working organ to develop in an embryo, where it begins to pump blood at about three weeks. It’s a muscle that continuously distributes blood throughout the body for an entire lifetime. We don’t give the heart much thought…until there’s something wrong with it.

Diseases of the heart often involve the blood vessels, too. Cardiovascular disease is the umbrella term given to include all types of diseases that affect the heart or blood vessels.

Globally, diseases of the heart and blood vessels are the leading cause of death. Heart disease in the U.S. alone takes almost 800,000 lives each year, close to a third of all of the country’s yearly deaths.

But here’s some great news. Heart disease has trended downward in recent years, and it’s estimated that up to 90% of cardiovascular disease may be preventable. Many forms of heart disease can be prevented or managed with healthy lifestyle choices.

What is heart disease?

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Heart disease occurs in a myriad of forms. These include:

  • Coronary heart disease (or coronary artery disease) – the condition of blocked or narrow blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, chest pain (angina) or stroke
  • Heart attack (or myocardial infarction)
  • Sudden cardiac arrest
  • Arrhythmias – heart rhythm problems
  • Endocarditis – a heart infection
  • Heart valve problems
  • Heart failure – typically a long-term condition that gradually becomes worse
  • Congenital heart problems (defects present from birth)

What causes these categories of heart disease and how are they treated?

Coronary heart disease is caused by a buildup of plaque inside the coronary arteries. The Centers for Disease Control explain that “plaque is made up of cholesterol deposits. Plaque buildup causes the inside of the arteries to narrow over time. This process is called atherosclerosis.”

A heart attack may be the most broadly mentioned and dreaded of heart diseases. Heart attacks occur when there’s damage to the muscle because one of the arteries leading to the heart gets blocked and cuts off blood flow. Resulting lack of oxygen causes the heart muscle to begin to die.

Symptoms of a heart attack can be intense, but it’s more common for symptoms to start slowly and persist for hours, days, or weeks before a heart attack. Unlike cases of sudden cardiac arrest, the heart usually does not stop beating during a heart attack.

Sudden cardiac arrest is not the same. Heart function, consciousness, and breathing all stop abruptly when an electrical irregularity in the heart stops blood flow to the body. The American Heart Association says it

“occurs suddenly and often without warning. It is triggered by an electrical malfunction in the heart that causes an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). With its pumping action disrupted, the heart cannot pump blood to the brain, lungs and other organs. Seconds later, a person loses consciousness and has no pulse. Death occurs within minutes if the victim does not receive treatment.”

Treatment with a defibrillator is needed immediately. Defibrillators send an electric shock to the heart which restores a normal rhythm.

Arrhythmias range from mild to extreme. Variations in heart rate are normal. Your heart rate speeds up during exercise or when you’re nervous or excited. It slows down during rest or sleep. Usually, these variations are nothing to worry about, but some types of irregular heart rhythms such as atrial fibrillation require medication, implanted devices, or surgery.

Endocarditis is an infection of the inner lining of the heart chambers and heart valves. It usually happens when bacteria in the bloodstream attach to damaged tissue. In rare cases, fungi can cause it. Blood tests help identify the bacteria that are causing infection. Antibiotics, administered by IV drip, are usually successful. Sometimes surgery is needed to repair valves and clean up the remaining infection.

Valve problems include stenosis (narrowing), leaky valves, or prolapse (improper closing of valves). Valve repair or replacement surgery is usually the solution for stenosis. Leaky valves allow blood to flow in both directions, causing the heart to work harder. Medication may help but a doctor may recommend surgery to repair or replace the defective valve.

A prolapsed condition occurs when the flaps of the mitral valve do not close smoothly. Instead, they bulge upward. Sometimes it’s not serious. Medication can help, but if symptoms worsen or part of the heart becomes enlarged, surgery may be necessary.

Heart failure occurs where the heart isn’t pumping well. It may become enlarged, pump faster or add extra muscle tissue. It’s typically a long-term condition that gradually becomes worse. Treatment with a combination of medications and lifestyle precautions helps patients feel better and live longer lives.

Congenital heart defects take place in the formation of the heart during the baby’s development. Some are simple and no treatment is required. There’s often no known cause.

A combination of the genetics of both parents and environmental factors may have contributed to the condition.

The behavior of the mother is typically not to blame, although many are tempted to scrutinize every detail of their pregnancy for answers.

Certain medications, smoking, alcohol abuse, and heredity could contribute to the risk. Diabetes and contracting German measles (rubella) during pregnancy are possible causes of congenital heart disease. Getting tested for immunity to rubella and receiving a vaccination can prevent this risk. Diabetic mothers must carefully control their condition before and during pregnancy.

What are the best ways to take control of your heart health?

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To prevent developing heart and blood vessel problems, educate yourself about methods to stay heart-healthy. The earlier you begin, the better your chance of avoiding problems.

It’s a myth that only older people should worry about heart issues. Behavior and diet from childhood onward can begin the trend toward clogged arteries, but it’s clear a healthy lifestyle from an early age cuts risks dramatically.

Testing and regular checkups are vital. Type 2 diabetes and high blood cholesterol are significant risk factors for heart disease, and far more common among young people than they used to be. Testing for these should begin early, not in middle age as once believed.

High blood pressure is often called the “silent killer”. You may not know you have the condition until checked. It damages blood vessels which allow a bad form of cholesterol to accumulate on the artery walls.

High blood pressure is a serious threat to other areas of your health, too. Stroke, kidney disease, vision problems, sexual dysfunction and more are related to high blood pressure. Make healthy lifestyle choices to reduce the risk, get it checked, and take medication if your doctor says it’s needed.

Stop smoking, or better yet, never start. Like high blood pressure, smoking damages the lining of your arteries, making the interior walls susceptible to a buildup of fatty material which narrows the artery. The result can be angina, a heart attack or a stroke. In addition, there’s carbon monoxide in tobacco smoke which reduces the amount of oxygen available in your blood.

Why is it important to stay physically active?

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Getting and staying active is one of the best defenses against heart disease. One expert from the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts General Hospital says to think of exercise as an insurance policy offering short-term and long-term protection.

A single exercise session may protect the cardiovascular system for up several hours. She says, “In essence, you’re training your heart to be more resilient.” It should be moderate to vigorous exercise, not just being on your feet or moving around a little bit.

Physical activity accomplishes many concrete outcomes for your heart and blood vessels, including

  • Making the muscle of the heart more efficient, pushing out more blood with each beat, allowing your heart to beat slower. This helps control blood pressure.
  • Causes the blood vessels to dilate more readily.
  • Relieves stress and helps reduce high blood pressure.
  • Reduces the likelihood of obesity.

A sedentary lifestyle does the opposite. Some studies indicate being sedentary may be twice as much of a risk factor as obesity.

What do experts say is the best food for the heart?

For a few decades, fats were villainized as causing high cholesterol, weight gain, and heart problems. Other dietary components stayed under the radar. But it’s become clear that sugar is damaging to blood vessels that help control your heart muscle. High glucose levels contribute to increased risk of high blood pressure, narrowing the vessels.

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids are great for your heart. Fish, especially wild-caught salmon is prime, but tuna, trout, sardines, and mackerel are good sources, too. Aim for two servings a week.

Nuts like almonds, cashews, walnuts, pistachios, flaxseed, and chia seed contain good fats that raise your “good” cholesterol.

Most herbs/spices have anti-inflammatory properties. Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries have lots of fiber and nutrients that are heart-healthy. The same goes for most vegetables.

Avocados and red grapes are great food recommendations for your heart too. They also taste delicious! If you’re drinking red wine for heart health, remember that a little goes a long way. Excess alcohol will hurt your heart rather than help it.

It should come as no surprise that living with unhealthy stress is another contributor to heart disease. Learning to control sources of stress in your particular situation has to be tailored to fit.

Explore forms of exercise that you enjoy and find relaxing. Walking helps your body and brain to unwind after a long day. Try yoga, mindfulness exercises, and other agreeable activities that slow down your heart rate, help you breathe deeply, and promote pleasant thoughts.

Final Thoughts

If you have a family history of heart disease, there’s no dodging the fact that your risk factors may be greater. That’s not a dire prediction, though! You can take the steps outlined above to dramatically reduce your risk in the same ways. Don’t wait until you’ve developed problems.

Eat wholesome foods, maintain a healthy weight, and move around more. Get checkups and learn to effectively manage stress. You’re sure to gain a healthier heart and greater peace of mind.

Danny Ray & Lisamarie Monaco Contributed To This Article
Danny Ray & Lisamarie Monaco Contributed To This Article

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