It should go without saying that cardiovascular disease is a very serious issue; however, many people are simply unaware of what exactly heart disease is and how to recognize the signs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 600,000 people in the United States die of heart disease every year. Yet in a 2005 survey, only 27 percent of respondents were aware of the major symptoms of heart disease and knew when to call emergency services in response to a heart attack. As a cardiologist who sees the devastating effects of this disease on a regular basis, I cannot stress enough how important it is to raise awareness about this illness and promote good cardiovascular health.
What is Cardiovascular Disease?
Cardiovascular disease (also known as heart disease) can actually be a number of different diseases that affect blood flow or circulation to the heart as well as the mechanical function and electrical circuitry system of the heart muscle. The most common form of heart disease is coronary heart disease (or coronary artery disease), which kills over 385,000 people in the United States every year.
Coronary heart disease results from damage to the inner walls of the arteries and a build up of fatty cholesterol deposits called plaque in the arteries. This means that the small blood vessels that supply the heart with oxygen and blood become narrowed and blocked, so the heart receives less blood. When this happens, the heart must work harder to supply the vital organs, which puts strain on heart that could lead to a heart attack. In addition, the plaque may form clots that can become dislodged and make their way through the bloodstream to the brain, often resulting in a stroke.
Causes of Coronary Heart Disease
Heart disease is a major national health concern. Although heart disease is typically diagnosed in adulthood , sadly, its roots often start in childhood. Plaque can begin building up in the arteries as early as childhood, and it usually develops over many years and even decades. Multiple factors can contribute to this build up, including high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, obesity, family history, stress and age. When many symptoms are grouped together, you may be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, which greatly increases your risk of having a heart attack or coronary episode.
What Are the Symptoms of Heart Disease?
Although heart disease often progresses slowly over time, there are some common warning signs that you could be suffering from heart disease. These include:
• Tightness, pressure or pain in the chest (angina).
• Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
• Upper body pain that radiates through the jaws, upper shoulders, arms or back (especially for women)
Some less common signs include dizziness, sweating, nausea, vomiting and heart palpitations. It should be noted that some people exhibit no symptoms at all, and women in particular seem to show fewer of the common symptoms, like angina, and more of the less common symptoms, which are often passed off as other ailments. Moreover, heart disease and heart attacks are not limited to people who are ill or advanced in years. Acute heart attacks can strike even young people and those who are seemingly healthy.
How to Prevent Heart Disease and Heart Attacks
When it comes to heart disease, early diagnosis is the key. It is important to keep track of your personal risk factors and to try and keep them under control. Obviously there are some conditions that you cannot control, like a family history of heart disease or advanced age, but the majority of risk factors are manageable.
A healthy lifestyle is vitally important not just for preventing cardiovascular disease but also for your overall well-being. Try to eat a healthy diet made up of whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, seeds and nuts. Incorporate exercise into your daily routine, and find activities that you enjoy and cut down on stress like meditation, yoga or tai chi. Quit smoking and try to cut out or cut down on unhealthy substances like processed foods, alcohol and caffeine.
If you have one or more risk factors for heart disease like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity or diabetes, schedule an appointment with your doctor to devise a plan to adopt healthy lifestyle changes that can add years to your life and greatly improve your quality of living.
For more information about heart disease and healthy living, please read my comprehensive book on heart health, Your Vibrant Heart: Restoring Health, Strength and Spirit from the Body's Core.
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