Understanding Heart Disease
A healthy heart is a miracle of nature. Pumping oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to every part of the body and carrying away waste products, it is vital to our well-being and essential to life itself.
Fortunately, most of us are born with healthy hearts that, barring unforeseen trauma or illness, serve us well throughout much of our lives. However, as we age, there is an increased tendency for problems to develop that can seriously jeopardize heart health.
Heart disease, or coronary artery disease, occurs when the blood vessels that supply the heart with oxygen-rich blood become clogged with plaque, an excess of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances that circulate in the blood. When plaque builds up in the arteries, the condition is called atherosclerosis. Left untreated, atherosclerosis can cut off the flow of blood to a portion of the heart, causing a heart attack. Depending on the location and severity of the blockage, a heart attack can result in permanent damage to the heart and even death.
Although some people have a genetic (inherited) tendency to develop heart disease, the condition can affect anyone, especially later in life, when the effects of poor diet and lifestyle choices typically begin to take their toll. People with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a family history of heart disease are at greatest risk. Other risk factors include –
- High stress levels
- Diets high in fat content
- Tobacco use
Although one of these risk factors alone is probably not cause for concern, two or more may pose a real threat to heart health. On a positive note, it’s never too late to lower risks through positive lifestyle changes and regular medical checkups.
No matter your age, family history, or how sedentary your lifestyle may currently be, if you’re concerned about heart disease, you can help prevent future problems and even reverse damage that may already exist.
Adopting a heart-healthy way of eating can significantly lower cholesterol and reduce the accumulation of plaque in your arteries. The National Institute of Health and most physicians recommend a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, low-fat or non-fat dairy, lean meats, fish, poultry, grains, nuts and beans to help lower blood pressure and combat heart disease.
Another key ingredient to good heart health is engaging in a regular program of exercise designed to improve cardiac function and reduce fat buildup. Even small steps, such as walking more and driving less, and using the stairs instead of the elevator, can make a real difference in lowering cholesterol and strengthening the heart muscle.
Even if there’s no history of heart disease in your family and you have no apparent symptoms, it’s important to get regular cardiac checkups. This is especially true if you are more than 50 years old, overweight, or a smoker. Most physicians will tell you that when it comes to staying heart healthy, regular checkups play a vital role in identifying potential problems before the damage becomes irreversible.
Initially, people with developing heart disease may not even know they have a problem. However, as arteries become more constricted, they may experience fatigue, shortness of breath and occasional chest pain (also known as angina). If left untreated, these episodes may increase in severity and eventually result in a full-blown heart attack.
Individuals with high blood pressure should be especially careful, as pressure may increase as blood vessels narrow and lose their elasticity, placing them at higher risk for both heart attack and stroke. As such, blood pressure should be regularly monitored and controlled with medication.
If you have any of these symptoms or conditions, you should visit a cardiologist (heart specialist) who can determine if a heart problem exists and prescribe the best course of treatment.
There are several safe, painless tests that can help your doctor make an evaluation of your overall heart health. These may include an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) to measure the electrical impulses in the heart, and a stress test to show how the heart reacts to strenuous exercise. Other diagnostic tests may include a chest x-ray, an echocardiogram to examine the heart’s structure and function, and a calcium scan to determine the degree of plaque buildup in the coronary arteries.
If initial tests indicate potential problems, your doctor may order an angiogram, a minimally invasive procedure usually done in the hospital, to determine if any blockages exist in or around the heart.
If tests determine that there is significant blockage in one or more blood vessels, treatment options may include medication or angioplasty, a procedure to open clogged vessels. In cases where blockage is too severe or not accessible through angioplasty, the doctor may recommend cardiac bypass surgery. Although this is a major surgical procedure involving grafting of veins from other parts of the body to “bypass” blocked arteries, it is increasingly common and has an extremely high success rate.
If you are diagnosed with heart disease, you will probably need to make certain changes in your lifestyle. Depending on your individual situation, this may mean changing your diet, exercising regularly, losing weight, or quitting smoking.If you have high blood pressure, you may need to reduce your intake of salt. Some doctors prescribe “an aspirin a day” to thin the blood; others may recommend meditation classes or yoga to reduce stress and help lower blood pressure.
If you have had a heart attack, you will likely need to undergo a program of cardiac rehab to strengthen your heart and rebuild your stamina. You may also require medication to lower cholesterol, reduce fluids and/or regulate blood pressure.
Most importantly, once you have been diagnosed with heart disease, you must learn to be your own best “health advocate.” Know what warning signs to look for – fluid buildup, dizziness, tightness in the chest, unusual fatigue – and be diligent about getting checkups and treatment. Heightened awareness and regular monitoring are truly the keys to a heart-healthy future.