February is American Heart Month, a time dedicated to understanding the dangers of heart disease, one of the biggest health challenges in our country. Heart Month is also the perfect time to learn and adopt the healthy lifestyle behaviors that can help prevent heart disease.
The heart is a powerful muscle that dutifully beats about 100,000 times per day, pumping blood throughout our bodies to power our organs and brain. The heart does a lot of work for us – we need to take care of it!
The High Cost of Heart Disease
Heart disease – also referred to as cardiovascular disease – remains the number-one cause of death in the United States, for both women and men:
- Every 34 seconds, someone in the United States dies from heart disease
- In 2020, roughly 697,000 Americans died from heart disease
- In 2020, heart disease was the cause of one out of every five deaths
Cardiovascular disease is a major cause of disability in our nation, taking people out of the workforce prematurely and reducing quality of life.
Heart disease is also expensive: in 2017-18, the most recent years for which there is data, heart disease was responsible for a negative economic impact of $229 billion in the United States when factoring in the cost of health care, medication and lost productivity. That’s nearly equal to the two-year budget for the entire state of Texas!
The good news is that we now know more than ever about how to take care of our hearts. And when something does go wrong, advances in medicine have made it easier to treat problems and prevent them from getting worse.
Types of Heart Disease
The term “heart disease” encompasses several conditions, including:
Coronary Artery Disease
Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) is the most common form of heart disease and is often the root cause of heart attacks and other heart problems. CAD occurs when plaque – deposits of cholesterol and other substances – build up in the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart. When blood flow to the heart is impeded over a long period of time, the heart becomes weakened and heart failure can result. If blood flow is completely cut off, a heart attack will result. CAD can also cause blood clots, which may lead to stroke.
A heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction, occurs when a portion of the heart suddenly receives inadequate blood flow. The longer the heart goes without sufficient blood flow, the greater the damage that will be done to the heart.
Each year, about 805,000 Americans suffer a heart attack. Nearly 25% of these are “repeat” heart attacks, meaning the person has had at least one heart attack in the past. Roughly one in five heart attacks is a silent heart attack. That’s when the person doesn’t realize it happened, yet there was some damage done.
Since time is of the essence, everyone should recognize the signs of a heart attack and know when to seek immediate medical attention:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck or back
- Feeling weak, light-headed, nauseous or faint (more common in women)
- Pain or discomfort in arms or shoulder
If you or someone around you suddenly begins to experience one or more of these symptoms, call 911 immediately. The sooner you receive medical attention, the greater your odds of recovering from a heart attack.
Angina is chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart.
Arrhythmia occurs when the heart beats irregularly. Palpitations and a fluttering feeling in the chest are a symptom of arrhythmia. Arrhythmia increases the risk of blood clots and stroke.
This is the narrowing of the arteries because of plaque buildup.
This condition results from the stiffening or enlargement of the heart muscle, which can cause inadequate blood pumping. Cardiomyopathy can result from many factors, including genetics. Uncontrolled high blood pressure is a key risk factor for this condition.
Heart failure – also called congestive heart failure (due to the buildup of fluids in the lungs, limbs and liver) – results from the gradual weakening of the heart muscle. The heart is still beating but no longer pumps blood correctly.
Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD)
When the arteries that supply blood to the arms and legs narrow or stiffen due to atherosclerosis, the blood and oxygen flow to the limbs can be diminished or even blocked. This can lead to numbness, tingling and pain in the legs and arms.
Protect Your Heart from Threats
While some forms of heart disease are influenced by genetics, many risk factors for heart disease can be mitigated by making good lifestyle decisions. Taking care of our hearts is especially important as we get older – just like our other muscles, the heart naturally loses some of its strength as we age.
Here’s a look at some of these common risk factors and steps you can take to improve heart health:
Hypertension (high blood pressure)
Chronic high blood pressure, or hypertension, is a major heart disease risk factor that affects a lot of people. It usually produces no noticeable symptoms but can result in severe damage to the heart if untreated. Here are some key statistics:
- About half of all adults in the United States have hypertension
- Of those who have high blood pressure:
- Only one out of four has their blood pressure under control
- One in three have no idea their blood pressure is elevated and therefore are not being treated for it.
- Many are young: one in four people aged 20-44 have hypertension
Blood pressure is the force of blood against the arteries. It is measured in two numbers:
- Systolic (upper number): when the heart beats
- Diastolic (lower number): when the heart is resting, in between beats
Blood pressure is categorized in the following ways:
- Normal: Less than 120/80 mm Hg;
- Elevated: Systolic between 120-129 and diastolic less than 80;
- Stage 1 Hypertension: Systolic between 130-139 or diastolic between 80-89;
- Stage 2 Hypertension: Systolic at least 140 or diastolic at least 90;
- Hypertensive crisis: Systolic over 180 and/or diastolic over 120
Consistently elevated blood pressure can damage the arteries over time. It also makes the heart work harder to pump blood, causing extra strain and possible damage to the heart. Hypertension often develops gradually with age. There are several known risk factors that contribute to high blood pressure, including:
- Too much salt consumption
- Too little potassium intake
- Excessive alcohol use
- Tobacco use
- Inadequate exercise
- Being overweight
- Not getting enough sleep
If diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes are insufficient to bring blood pressure into a normal range, your physician may prescribe medication.
All adults should have their blood pressure checked by a medical professional periodically:
- Men and women, age 18-39: every three to five years
- Men and women, age 40 and older: at least once a year
Cholesterol is a waxy substance in the bloodstream. Our bodies need cholesterol to build healthy cells and aid in the digestive process. While the body produces all the cholesterol it needs on its own, we consume additional cholesterol through certain foods, such as meat, dairy and eggs.
Cholesterol is transported through the bloodstream by lipoproteins. There are two types of lipoproteins, low-density (LDL) and high-density (HDL). LDL is often referred to as “bad cholesterol” and HDL as “good cholesterol.”
LDL cholesterol contributes to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, which can lead to coronary artery disease. Keeping LDL levels in check is very important for heart health.
Conversely, the higher your HDL is, the better. The HDL lipoproteins transport cholesterol and fat through the blood and to the liver, so they can be eliminated from the body.
Triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood, can also be harmful to cardiovascular health if levels are too high.
A cholesterol screening is a simple blood test. Everyone should receive cholesterol screenings periodically:
- Children between the ages of 9-11
- Young adults between the ages of 17-21
- Adults every 4-6 years, if no history of heart disease
- Adults with a history of heart disease should visit with their physician about how often to be screened.
If your LDL levels are elevated, you can sometimes bring them down by making diet and exercise adjustments:
- Eat less saturated fat, the type of fat found in meat and dairy
- Avoid trans fats altogether. These are found in many processed baked goods, as well as some fried foods. Trans fats are the worst type of fat – they raise LDL cholesterol while reducing HDL levels.
- HDL levels can be elevated through regular exercise.
If diet and exercise alone are insufficient to bring cholesterol levels into a healthy range, your physician may prescribe a medication known as a statin. Statins have proven to be effective at reducing overall cholesterol levels.
Diabetes & Prediabetes
A major risk factor for heart disease and other serious health problems, diabetes is a disorder of the metabolism. Under normal circumstances, the liver breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, also known as blood sugar. The liver releases the glucose into the blood stream. Meanwhile, the pancreas, a gland located near the stomach, produces insulin, which is a hormone that helps the body’s cells absorb the sugar in the blood. Our cells then use the glucose for energy. If a person’s cells are unable to absorb enough glucose, blood sugar levels rise to unhealthy levels. This can lead to diabetes. Prediabetes occurs when blood sugar is elevated but not yet at the level when someone is considered diabetic.
Your doctor can check your blood sugar level with a simple blood test. For the best defense against high blood sugar, keep these tips in mind:
- Some foods should be avoided or eaten only in moderation, including white flour products like bread and pasta, as well as white rice
- Avoid sugary drinks, including soda and fruit drinks
- Get regular exercise
- Drink plenty of water
All adults should have their blood sugar levels checked periodically:
- Men and women ages 45 and older, every three years
- Men and women ages 19-44, if overweight or obese
- Women who have had gestational diabetes
Healthy Eating & Regular Exercise = Good for the Heart
Did you notice a common theme when it comes to the triple threats of hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes? That’s right – physical activity and healthy eating help prevent all three.
“Eating right and getting enough exercise are two of the best things you can do for your overall health and especially for your heart health,” explains Dr. Atish Chopra, a vascular surgeon based in Fort Worth. “Not only will you help prevent heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, but you’ll keep extra weight off, which makes your heart’s job easier. With regular exercise, you’ll give your heart a workout, helping it stay strong and healthy!”
See our January articles on eating healthy and exercising smart for more ideas on developing a heart-healthy plan that works for you.
Other Keys to Taking Care of Your Heart
“Everyone experiences stress – it doesn’t matter what your job is, how old you are or where you live,” says Dr. Brian Senger, an internal medicine physician practicing in Mansfield. “If stress is not managed correctly, it will negatively impact our health. For example, stress contributes to high blood pressure. In addition, some people try to cope with stress by turning to unhealthy habits, such as smoking or excessive drinking.”
Getting plenty of regular sleep and exercise are valuable tools to manage stress. In addition, it’s important to be intentional about making time to relax. Reading, watching a movie, spending time with family and friends – all these activities are helpful in managing stress levels.
Get Some Sleep
Sleep is one of the most basic human needs, but is overlooked by many. Sufficient sleep helps us think more clearly and solve problems, but it’s not just our brains that benefit. Sleep helps the heart and blood vessels repair themselves. This is one of the reasons that inadequate sleep increases the risk for heart disease.
“Adults should sleep between 7-8 hours a night,” says Dr. Christy Baze, a family practice physician in Hurst. “For the best sleep, go to bed and wake up at the same times each day. Avoid watching TV and looking at your phone or tablet before bedtime.”
Don’t Smoke or Vape
Smoking is one of the very worst things you can do to your heart:
- Because smoking constricts the blood vessels, the heart must work harder to pump blood.
- Smoking makes blood more likely to clot inside the blood vessels. A clot that blocks blood flow to the heart can lead to a heart attack. A stroke will result if blood flow to the brain is cut off.
- Smoking also contributes to unhealthy cholesterol levels by increasing harmful triglycerides and reducing beneficial HDL cholesterol.
- Smoking can cause arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat. This condition also makes blood clots more likely, further increasing risk of heart attack and stroke.
Vaping is not a safe alternative to smoking. If you smoke or vape, make an appointment to see your doctor so you can work on a plan to quit for good.
Take Care of your Heart!
By reducing the odds of key heart disease risk factors like hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes, we’ll provide our heart valuable protection.
Our hearts work hard for us – making good choices gives them the best chance to keep on beating strong for years to come.
This article has been reviewed and approved by a panel of Privia Medical Group North Texas physicians.
This article contains information sourced from:
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention