February is American Heart Month, the time of the year that we should all take a step and think about our heart health. Although many typically do not worry about heart health until old age, or until our doctors tell us to, thinking about your heart health early-on can do wonders in preventing heart disease which is the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States.
Close to Home, Close to the Heart
Chances are every person in the United States knows or is related to someone with a form of heart disease, and this is because according to the CDC, one person dies every 36 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease. About 659,000 people in the United States die from heart disease each year— that’s 1 in every 4 deaths. Of these deaths, coronary heart disease is the most common, killing 360,900 people in 2019 alone. In addition, some 18.2 million adults age 20 and older have coronary artery disease (CAD) making this a concern for all adults young and old.
If these statistics aren’t enough to make your heart stop, the CDC also notes that about every 40 seconds someone in the United States suffers from a heart attack with an estimated 805,000 people suffering from a heart attack every year. Out of these, 1 in 5 heart attacks are silent – meaning that the heart suffers damage without the person being aware that their heart has been affected.
Scared yet? Hopefully by now you are one of the many Americans who are looking to make a positive change in life to prevent heart disease, which costs the U.S. medical system some $363 billion dollars a year. One of the best ways to combat this disease and reduce your risk is to understand exactly what it is, and how healthy adults both young and old can develop heart disease. So, what is heart disease? What are the symptoms? And, more importantly, how can one put a stop to a lifestyle that leads up to developing heart disease?
It Comes from the Heart
The term heart disease refers to several types of heart conditions. Of these, Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) is the most common, however Angina, Arrhythmia, Atherosclerosis, and Pulmonary Hypertension are just some of the numerous diseases and terms related to heart disease that many Americans live with today.
In short, heart disease can develop in almost anyone. Furthermore, how one looks on the outside doesn’t quite tell the story going on inside the body. According to the CDC heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. For men specifically, 1 in every 4 male deaths are due to heart disease. However, more startling is that half of men who die suddenly of coronary heart disease had no previous symptoms. Meaning one could seem perfectly healthy on the outside while silently the heart is developing a heart disease that can be fatal.
For women, the future can be just as frightening with about 1 in 16 women age 20 and older having coronary heart disease and 1 in every 5 female deaths being the result of heart disease. Moreover, heart disease comes first, or second as the leading cause of death across all ethnic groups. For African Americans heart disease is the leading cause of death, while for Hispanic, Asian, and Pacific Islander Americans heart disease comes only second to cancer.
Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)
CAD, the number one heart disease affecting Americans today, is caused by plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries that supply blood to the heart. These arteries, called coronary arteries, become restricted due to deposits of cholesterol and other substances which narrow the passageways that allow blood to flow to the heart — this process is called atherosclerosis.
Due to the buildup in the artery walls a person living with CAD may experience what is called Angina, which is chest pain or discomfort and the most common symptom of CAD. Angina begins to occur when too much plaque builds up inside arteries, causing them to narrow. The chest pain that one feels is due to the lack of blood flow to the heart muscle and thus the rest of the body. Over time this decreased blood flow causes the heart muscle to weaken.
Other Related Diseases
In addition to CAD, there are numerous diseases that affect thousands, with some being due to certain lifestyle choices, and others being genetic, or as a result of other health conditions such as Marfan syndrome, rheumatic heart disease, and pulmonary hypertension, all of which are often genetic, or due to other diseases not related to the heart.
Pulmonary hypertension for example can be a result of liver disease, emphysema, and chronic blood clots in the lungs, which result in high pressure in the arteries between the heart and lungs thus causing shortness of breath and fatigue.
Marfan syndrome is one example of a genetic heart condition that affects the connective tissues that support the body and organs. With Marfan syndrome, damage can be done to the organs, and bones including the blood vessels and heart, which is why this syndrome is often associated with other heart diseases.
Although there are many reasons one can’t help with regards to certain heart conditions, most Americans living with heart disease have developed these conditions due to lifestyle choices that put them at risk. This means that there are changes we can all make to keep our hearts happy and healthy.
High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure or hypertension is a major risk for heart disease which, uncontrolled, can affect your heart and other major organs including your kidneys and brain. Often called the “silent killer”, high blood pressure often doesn’t have any symptoms with the only real way of knowing whether you have high blood pressure being to measure your blood pressure. Hypertension is often caused by unhealthy blood cholesterol levels that build up over time within the arteries which allow the flow of blood between the heart and other parts of the body.
The Good and the Bad on Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance which like most things, too much of it can be bad for your health. This is especially the case for cholesterol which is naturally produced by the liver. However, cholesterol is also found in certain foods, and thus overconsumption of these foods paired with the body’s natural production of cholesterol can cause buildup in the body. However, it’s not all bad news for cholesterol as there is good cholesterol that the body needs to function properly.
LDL and HDL Cholesterol
The two main types of blood cholesterol are LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, which is considered to be “bad” cholesterol because it can cause plaque buildup in your arteries; and HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, which is considered to be “good cholesterol because higher levels provide some protection against heart disease.
High blood cholesterol usually has no has no signs nor symptoms, meaning the only way of knowing whether you have too much good or bad cholesterol is to get your cholesterol checked by your physician. Typically, this is done at your annual physical exam — which according to the CDC only about 15-24% of Americans aged 18-64 receive.
Bad Habits Die Hard
If you’re not so keen on checking in with your doctor to get the full story on your heart health, at the very least know that what you do on the outside has major impacts on the inside of your body. Consuming foods that are high in saturated fats, trans fat, and cholesterol are naturally linked to heart disease and related conditions. Combined with other bad habits such as lack of physical activity, excessive alcohol consumption, and tobacco use are the classic mix for heart disease
Food that are high in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol as well as too much salt (sodium) in your diet can raise your blood pressure. This is again due to excess fats and cholesterols that the body does not use that eventually build up in the arteries leading to the heart. Monitoring your consumption of these natural compounds can help prevent them from building up in your body. The American Heart Association recommends limiting fats, and cholesterol consumption to just 300 milligrams per day. Unfortunately for those die-hard fast-food fans out there, one cheeseburger can amount to as much as one-third or half that amount each. Meanwhile that garden salad we somehow always seem to miss has about 17 mg of fats — and that’s including cheese!
Lack of Physical Activity
Surely, it’s no secret to anyone that exercise is essential to good health. Yet, the CDC notes that only 23% of Americans over the age of 18 get enough of it. In addition, to being linked to a plethora of other medical conditions, lack of exercise is the spark in a chain of medical conditions that ultimately lead toward severe heart disease. Obesity, which is prevalent amongst 42% of Americans goes hand-in-hand with high blood pressure and as well diabetes. However, as these conditions and behaviors are all related, increasing your amount of daily physical activity can greatly reduce your risks.
Drinking alcohol can raise blood pressure levels while also increasing triglycerides, a fatty substance in the blood which is also linked to heart disease. According to the CDC women should have no more than 1 drink a day, while men shouldn’t have more than 2 drinks a day.
Cigarette smoking damages the heart and blood vessels, which increased your risk for heart conditions such as atherosclerosis and heart attack. Nicotine specifically, raises the blood pressure while carbon monoxide from cigarette smoke reduces the amount of oxygen that your blood can carry. So much so that even exposure to secondhand smoke is known to increase the risk for heart disease amongst non-smokers.
If any of these habits apply to you then the likelihood is that you may already be at high risk for heart disease, or worse, have unknowingly experienced major symptoms of heart disease that are weakening your heart. It’s important to remember that our habits and lifestyle often times has a major impact on the overall health of our bodies, especially the heart.
Healthy Choices for a Healthy Heart
If you’re ready to start making a positive change for a healthy future, know that it’s quite easy to get on track toward a healthy heart. The only hard part is breaking the poor habits that have many people failing to launch. Put simply, making healthy diet choices, exercising regularly, and quitting smoking are the three main ingredients for heart health.
Choose Healthy Foods and Drinks
Paying attention to the nutrition label on your favorite pack of frozen pre-packaged foods can be a numbers game that not everyone has the time or capacity to do. Quite honestly, some might find it totally unrealistic. Instead, try eating more foods that are high in fiber with no added sugar, as these are often clearly labeled, while also tend to contain less of the unhealthy fats and cholesterols that lead to heart disease. Limiting alcohol, sugar, and salt intake to prevent high blood pressure are also effective means of preventing heart disease and keeping your heart strong.
Getting the recommended amount of exercise per week is also key in lowering your risks. Although it may seem daunting, the surgeon-general recommends only 2 and a half hours of moderate-intensity exercise a week. That can be as easy 30 minutes of brisk walking or bicycling a day.
Break the Habit
Quitting smoking is likely the hardest of these key factors, however your body will thank you with the numerous health benefits that come with quitting smoking such as increased happiness, energy, and more money in your wallet from not spending an estimated $12,400 on cigarettes in a year. If you struggle with nicotine addiction, ask your doctor for effective methods to help you kick the habit and start on your way toward a healthier heart.
A Heart Healthy America
If you’re just getting started on your heart healthy journey, know that you are not alone and that there are organizations who are looking out for you and your heart. Find the most up-to-date information, research, and resources to help you make the necessary changes to keep your heart strong and prevent heart disease by checking out these resources below: