Basics & Facts
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. for both men and women. That’s why it’s important to understand what causes this condition and what you can expect if you are suffering from it.
Also known as cardiovascular disease, heart disease is a general term used to describe diseases affecting the heart. The term can actually describe several problems that develop as a result of this condition, such as coronary heart disease or arrhythmia. Most commonly, heart disease refers to a condition affecting the blood vessels in the heart – specifically, an issue with narrowed or blocked blood vessels.
Those who suffer from heart disease often experience a range of uncomfortable or painful symptoms. These symptoms often worsen as the disease progresses. The most common symptoms of heart disease include:
- Chest pain (also called angina)
- A sensation of squeezing on the heart or a tight feeling under the breast bone.
- Tightness in the neck, upper back, arms or stomach.
- Shortness of breath
- Fatigue with exertion
- General weakness
- Pain, numbness or coldness in the legs or arms.
As these symptoms worsen, they can lead to more serious issues, such as:
While many people with heart disease experience these symptoms, it’s important to note that some individuals can have heart disease, but not have any noticeable symptoms. Others feel the same symptoms, but to varying degrees.
Causes & Diagnosis
Heart disease is caused by atherosclerosis, a condition where fatty plaque builds up on the walls of the arteries. When this happens, blood flow to the organs tissues is restricted. Atherosclerosis is most commonly caused by one or more of the following factors:
- Being overweight
- Lack of exercise
- Eating an unhealthy diet
In addition to these lifestyle choices, the development of heart disease can also be affected by certain risk factors, including family history. The risk for heart diseases also increases as you age. Though men have a greater risk in general, the risk for women increases significantly after menopause. In addition, factors like stress, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and diabetes can also increase the risk of getting heart disease.
Several tests are typically used to diagnose heart disease. Some of the most common include an echocardiogram stress test, an electrocardiogram (ECG) or a heart CT scan. However, additional tests may be necessary to get an accurate diagnosis, such as a chest x-ray, blood tests, a cardiac MRI or cardiac catheterization. In addition to medical testing, a doctor will also inquire about personal and family medical history to assess your risk.
Some of an individual’s risk for heart disease – such as age, sex or family history – can’t be controlled. However, most people can significantly reduce their risk of heart by making smart lifestyle choices. The following are some of the best methods to help prevent heart disease:
- Eat a diet that is low in saturated fat and salt
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Exercise at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week
- Quit smoking
- Get other health conditions, like high blood pressure or diabetes, under control with proper treatment
- Reduce and manage stress
- Practice good hygiene
While it can’t prevent heart disease, you may be able to prevent the condition from worsening or becoming fatal by detecting it early. Therefore, it’s also important to get regular checkups, especially if you are at a higher risk for heart disease due to your health, your age and/or your family history.
Treatment & Management
The first method of treatment that most doctors recommend for people with heart disease is making lifestyle changes that can help open narrowed arteries. This includes all of the prevention tips listed above, such as getting regular exercise, eating well and getting other conditions like diabetes under control.
If lifestyle changes aren’t enough to properly manage an individual’s heart disease, then medications are typically prescribed. This can include daily aspirin therapy, blooding thinning medications, beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, diuretics, statins or fibrates.
When heart disease is more serious or artery blockages more severe, medical procedures or surgery may be necessary. One of the more common procedures used to treat heart disease is coronary angioplasty, where a catheter is used to thread a small balloon to a blocked artery where it is inflated to open the artery back up. A stent may be placed there to help keep the artery open. In more severe cases, coronary artery bypass surgery, where a vein from another part of the body is used to bypass the blocked section of the artery, may be performed.
Heart disease is a serious condition, but many people are able to recover by using the treatments listed above. It’s important to keep in mind that it’s possible for many people to prevent the disease from ever developing just by making smart lifestyle choices.