Heart disease, also known as cardiovascular disease, includes a number of conditions that affect either the heart’s function or the heart’s structures. It’s the number one cause of death for both men and women in the United States and continues to affect people at younger and younger ages. Though there are several types, the most common form of heart disease is coronary artery disease, or CAD.
Risk Factors and Causes
Those with the highest risk for developing heart disease tend to be older, smoke, or prone to a unhealthy lifestyle. Though men have a higher risk than women, the risk for women goes up after menopause. Female smokers are six times more likely to develop heart disease than those who do not smoke while male smokers are three times more likely. Being overweight or obese and inactive is also a significant risk factor. Having other conditions such as diabetes can increase your risk for heart disease notably.
The causes of heart disease vary, depending on the type of disease you have. CAD is caused by plaque buildup in the arteries that causes arteries to harden and narrow, limiting the amount of blood and oxygen to the heart. Some forms of heart disease occur because of high blood pressure, drug abuse, or a defect in the structure of the heart before birth.
Symptoms vary depending on the type of heart disease you have, but the most common symptoms include: chest pain, heart palpitations, irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, weakness, dizziness, nausea, and pain that may also be felt in the back, shoulders, arms, neck, and jaw. Symptoms of a heart attack may also be confused with indigestion, heartburn, or extreme psychological distress or anxiety. If you experience severe chest pain, shortness of breath, and extreme heart palpitation, seek medical attention immediately.
In addition to a thorough medical exam and patient history, a doctor may order one or more tests to deliver the official diagnosis. Electrocardiograms (ECG), echocardiograms, and stress tests are the most common diagnostic procedures for testing heart function. An electrocardiogram records electrical signals, as they travel through your heart, to reveal evidence of a previous attack or even show one in progress. An echocardiogram uses sound to display an image of your heart, which allows your doctor to determine which parts are functioning correctly and which are not. If signs and symptoms come up mostly when you exercise, you may be asked to do a stress test. Stress tests have you on a treadmill or riding a bike during one of the other two tests to measure how your heart handles moderate activity. Other tests may also be ordered, depending on symptoms and the type of suspected heart disease.
There are many types of heart disease including:
- Coronary Artery Disease (CAD): The hardening and narrowing of the arteries that provide blood and oxygen to the heart inhibiting overall blood flow.
- Abnormal Heart Rhythms: Changes in the rhythm of your heart beats, producing an uneven or irregular heartbeat that may skip beats, beat too fast, or beat too slow.
- Heart Failure: The heart no longer pumps as well as it should, leading to increased salt and water retention leading to shortness of breath and bodily swelling. Heart failure affects about five million people in the U.S each year.
- Heart Valve Disease: Issues with the valves that regulate the one-way blood flow throughout the heart are often caused by infection, illness, or tissue disorders.
- Congenital Heart Disease: A defect in at least one structure of the heart or blood vessels that most often happens during fetal development.
- Heart Muscle Disease (Cardiomyopathy): Refers to diseases of the heart muscles themselves, including enlarged, stiffened, or thickened heart muscle.
- Pericardial Disease: Inflammation of the lining surrounding the heart, typically caused by infection from bacteria, viruses, or parasites.
- Aorta Disease: Condition that cause the aorta, or main artery of the heart, to widen and/or tear which ultimately increases the risk of future life threatening events.
- Vascular Disease: Any disease that affects the circulatory system, or the system of blood vessels that carries blood throughout the body.
The prognosis depends on a variety of factors including: the type of heart disease, your overall health, your lifestyle, the medications you are prescribed, and other important lifestyle factors. Many people with heart issues can live a healthy life, though they must make lifestyle modifications to ensure their heart remains as healthy and strong as possible. Those with arterial blockage or buildup can improve heart function by losing weight, adhering to a heart healthy diet, exercising regularly, and avoiding all smoking. Those with severe cases may require surgery, such as a Coronary Artery Bypass, to build new arteries that can bypass locked portions of the heart. Surgeon may also repair or replace heart valves depending on your condition.
To improve prognosis quitting smoking is essential. Ask your doctor about any smoke cessation programs, groups, medications, or replacement therapies that can help. Be sure to also ask about an approved exercise program, as some exercises can place extra strain on the heart. Start eating a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables with whole grains and minimal salt and red meat. Avoid saturated and trans fat while carefully watching your sugar intake. Take all medication prescribed as directed and ask your doctor if a low dose aspirin regime is right for you. A healthy mind is as important as a healthy body; learn stress management techniques that keep your blood pressure low and your mind at ease.
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