Heart conditions are the most common cause of death in the United States. One in every four deaths in the US can be attributed to a heart condition, the most common being coronary artery disease. The most unfortunate part of this phenomenon is that the majority of heart conditions can be prevented by changes in lifestyle, such as quitting smoking, exercising, and eating healthy foods.
Below you’ll find the most common heart conditions and how to prevent them.
A heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction, is a life-threatening condition in which blood flow to the heart is suddenly blocked. During a heart attack, the heart muscle is robbed of oxygen and nutrients and begins to die as a result.
The most common cause of a heart attack is a buildup of fatty deposits — ‘bad’ cholesterol — that accumulates inside the coronary arteries and forms plaque. When a piece of the plaque breaks off, a blood clot forms and blocks off the narrowed artery, inhibiting blood flow to the heart.
If you think that you or a loved one may be experiencing a heart attack, seek immediate medical attention. Look out for these common signs and symptoms of a heart attack:
- Pressure, tightness, squeezing, or aching sensation in your chest, arms, neck, jaw, or back
- Nausea, indigestion, heartburn, abdominal pain
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweat
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
High blood pressure
High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is a condition in which the force of blood being pumped against the artery walls is too high. This condition affects a third of the population in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (1)
High blood pressure is known as the “silent killer” because there are no symptoms or signs and long-term, it increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Fortunately, high blood pressure can be easily detected and with lifestyle changes and medication when necessary, it can be controlled. Make sure that you are attending regular physicals and that you have your blood pressure checked each time.
Coronary artery disease
Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common heart condition and the leading cause of death in the United States. It happens when the major blood vessels that supply blood to the heart — the coronary arteries — become damaged or diseased. CAD is usually caused by a buildup of plaque on the inner walls of the arteries due to high cholesterol levels over a long period of time.
Many heart conditions including heart attack, heart failure, and arrhythmias happen as a result of coronary artery disease. In fact, many people are not aware that they have CAD until one of these incidents occurs.
Signs and symptoms of CAD to look out for include:
- Chest pain (angina). This is tightness of the chest that is usually triggered by physical or emotional stress.
- Shortness of breath. This is a sign that your heart cannot pump enough blood to support all systems in your body.
- Heart attack. Many times, a person has no idea that he or she has CAD until a heart attack occurs.
Cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle. It causes the muscle to become enlarged, hard, and rigid, and many times ends up replacing the heart muscle with scar tissue. Over time, the heart becomes progressively weaker and less capable of pumping blood throughout the body. Long-term, cardiomyopathy can lead to heart failure or irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias).
Some people never have signs and symptoms of cardiomyopathy until heart failure occurs. Others may experience symptoms in the early stages of the disease. When signs and symptoms do appear, they most commonly include:
- Shortness of breath, especially with physical exertion
- Swelling of the legs, ankles, and feet
- Cough while lying down
- Heartbeats that feel rapid, pounding, or fluttering
- Chest discomfort
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
Vascular disease includes any condition that affects the arteries or veins. There are many different types of vascular diseases, and they can lead to all kinds of different conditions depending on which blood vessels are affected.
When the arch branches — the vessels that supply blood to the brain — are diseased, a person is at risk of stroke. When the coronary arteries are affected, the person is at risk of heart attack. If the renal arteries become damaged, a person may have high blood pressure or kidney failure.
Vascular diseases are a major cause of death and disability. They can lead to the following conditions:
- Atherosclerosis (plaque buildup inside blood vessels)
- Blood clots
- Peripheral artery disease
- Pulmonary embolisms
How to Avoid Heart Disease
There are many different types of heart disease and fortunately, most of them can be prevented. While there are some risk factors that cannot be changed — age, sex, race, family history — there are plenty of lifestyle changes that you can make to lower your risk of the common heart conditions mentioned above.
Here is how you can ensure that you’re doing your best to live a heart-healthy life.
Quit smoking. People who smoke are more than twice as likely to have a heart attack as those who don’t smoke. Even just a few cigarettes a day can significantly increase your risk of heart disease. Time to kick the habit.
Eat a heart-healthy diet. Focus on filling yourself up with foods that are fresh and unprocessed. Your diet should consist of plenty of fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fatty fish, lean protein, and nuts and seeds. Avoid refined sugars and carbohydrates such as white flour, white rice, and sugar, and do away with anything artificial or processed. Limit your salt intake, as excess sodium causes high blood pressure.
Exercise regularly. People who are active are much less likely to get heart disease. Your heart is a muscle, and just like all other muscles in your body, it needs to be exercised regularly in order to stay healthy. Engage in physical activity for 45 minutes 3-4 times a week.
Keep tabs on your blood pressure. Sometimes people can have high blood pressure even when they are eating healthily and exercising regularly. Hypertension can also be hereditary, so it’s important to get your blood pressure checked regularly to make sure that it is not too high. If your blood pressure is high, your doctor will discuss lifestyle changes to bring it down and if that doesn’t help, you may be prescribed blood pressure lowering medication.
Keep cholesterol levels under control. High blood cholesterol levels is a major risk factor for heart disease. Stick to a heart-healthy diet, mentioned above, and get your cholesterol levels checked to make sure that your LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol) levels are not too high.
Lose weight if you need to. People who carry extra weight in their midsection are at a much greater risk of heart disease than those who are at a normal weight. Through healthy diet and exercise, work to slowly and naturally shed those extra pounds.
Limit alcohol. Alcohol can raise blood pressure which, as we know, is bad for the heart. Many alcoholic drinks are also full of calories which can contribute to weight gain — another stressor for the heart. Limit your intake to no more than two per day for men and one per day for women.
Manage stress levels. Stress, anxiety, and anger are linked to heart disease. Find activities that help you relieve stress and focus on yourself, even if it’s only a few minutes a day. Activities like yoga and meditation lower stress levels.
You have the power to control many of the risk factors that lead to heart disease. Through lifestyle changes and healthy habits, you can significantly lower your risk of developing life-threatening heart disease, like the ones listed above.