If you’re worried about heart disease, you’re not alone. It’s the leading cause of death in Bermuda for men and women of all ages combined. Heart disease kills about 17.9 million people per year worldwide—85% are due to heart attack or stroke.
This statistic is indeed scary! But, the good news is that a majority of heart diseases are preventable. It’s time to understand heart disease and the steps you can take to prevent it. To learn more, read on.
What Causes Heart Disease?
Heart disease or cardiovascular disease is a catch-all term for many conditions that affect the heart. It includes narrowed or blocked blood vessels, damage to nerves in the heart, and when arteries become narrow and clogged. Other conditions such as an abnormal heart rhythm, an enlarged heart, and narrowing of the valves can all occur and contribute to the development of heart disease.
Some types of heart disease can be inherited or passed on through genes from parents to their children. Other heart disease causes develop over time due to lifestyle factors, such as:
- Smoking Habits
- Sedentary Lifestyle
Atherosclerosis, or clogged arteries, is one of the most common causes of heart disease. Clogging of the arteries is due to the build-up of plaque containing fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances. As a result, arteries narrow and restrict blood flow to the heart. Plaques can also rupture, causing blood clots that stop blood flow through the arteries. The heart receives insufficient oxygen-rich blood, resulting in chest pain.
Risk Factors for Heart Disease
Though certain risk factors are out of your control, there are some that you can change. Knowing which ones are most important can help you make good decisions regarding your health.
Heart problems increase as you get older, particularly after age 45 in men and 55 in women.
Men have a greater chance of having a heart attack at an earlier age than women. However, this difference narrows with age. The risk of heart disease also increases after menopause when estrogen levels decrease in women.
Your risk for heart disease increases if a parent or sibling has been diagnosed with heart disease before the age of 65 (for females) or 55 (for males).
High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) contribute to the build-up of fatty deposits in arteries. On the other hand, high blood pressure (hypertension makes the heart work harder than it should, increasing your likelihood of developing heart failure.
If you quit smoking as soon as possible, your chance of developing heart disease drops dramatically within 5 years of quitting smoking.
When uncontrolled blood sugar levels damage the arteries, it takes longer for the body to repair the damage and thus making you more susceptible to a heart attack. Diabetic patients are at a two to four times greater risk of heart attacks than non-diabetics.
Being Overweight or Obese
If you have a poor diet and lack physical activity, this can increase your weight. Excessive weight leads to high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are risk factors for heart disease.
Excessive Alcohol Use
Heavy alcohol intake can raise blood pressure and damage the heart muscle. It also increases triglyceride levels (fatty substances in the blood) and can contribute to high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, stroke, and other heart-related problems.
Heart Disease Symptoms
In some cases, heart disease may go undetected and not cause any symptoms until a person experiences signs or symptoms of heart failure or a heart attack. Heart attacks can be silent or full of warning signs, but the results can be life-threatening in both cases.
The symptoms of heart disease also differ depending on the underlying cause. If your condition is congenital, you’ll experience heart murmurs.
Here are some symptoms most common to heart conditions:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest discomfort
- Chest tightness
- Fast heartbeat
- Pain or discomfort in the chest (angina); Angina pain may even feel like indigestion.
- Pain in your upper body, including arms, neck, jaw, back, and stomach
- Swelling in legs or feet (edema)
- Breaking out into a cold sweat
The more of these symptoms you experience, the more likely you will have a heart attack. If you are experiencing these warning signs, call 911 immediately.
How to Diagnose Heart Problems
Knowing your risk and conducting regular screenings can help prevent heart disease. If you suspect a heart problem, the next step is to schedule a doctor’s appointment. The doctor may do a physical exam and take your medical history at the appointment. The history questionnaire will include questions about your symptoms, risk factors for heart disease, lifestyle, medications, and any family history of heart disease.
Physical exams may include:
- Taking your temperature, pulse rate, and blood pressure.
- Listening to your breathing sounds and feeling for an irregular heartbeat.
- Looking at swelling in the legs and checking for signs of poor circulation.
If your physician suspects you might have heart problems, they may order diagnostic tests. There’s no single best test for heart disease, so they usually order a combination of tests.
EKG is a painless diagnostic test that records the electrical activity in the heart. The test shows how fast the heart is beating and its rhythm (steady or irregular). Doctors use it to diagnose various conditions, including abnormal rhythms, previous heart attacks, and certain inherited forms of cardiomyopathy.
An echocardiogram records images of your heart as it beats using ultrasound waves. This test can show areas that may not be getting enough blood flow or sections that have become too thick.
An exercise electrocardiogram (exercise ECG or stress ECG) shows how the heart responds to physical exertion. You’ll exercise on a stationary bike or a treadmill during the test while your doctor monitors your heart rate and rhythm, blood pressure, and breathing.
This test is a continuous electrocardiogram (ECG) that records the heart’s activity for 24 to 72 hours. The portable device can help your doctor determine whether you have an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) or if your medications are working properly.
An X-ray can aid your doctor see the size and shape of your heart and its blood vessels. It can also show whether or not you have a build-up of fluid in your lungs. Note that this test is not enough to diagnose a heart condition; other tests are necessary.
CT scan or MRI scan
These imaging tests may help your doctor see your heart and blood vessels clearer using X-rays to provide a detailed view of the organ.
Cardiac Catheterization/ Coronary Angiography
Heart caths are an invasive procedure that allows doctors to see the blood vessels inside the heart. It involves inserting a thin tube (catheter) through an artery or vein, guided by an X-ray image, into your heart. The specialist inserts the needle into the groin area, arm or neck and guides the catheter to your heart. By injecting dye through the catheter, it becomes possible to make these arteries visible on an X-ray image.
How Do You Treat Heart Disease?
Treatment for heart disease can vary widely depending on your specific type of heart problem. The most common treatments are medicines, surgery, and lifestyle changes. You and your doctor will go over the different options and decide which type of heart disease treatment suits you best.
There are a variety of medications your doctor may prescribe to treat your heart disease, including:
- aspirin to prevent blood clots
- beta-blockers to slow your heart rate
- ACE inhibitors to control blood pressure
- statins to reduce cholesterol
- diuretics to make you pee more and lower fluid build-up in the lungs and around the heart
2.Lifestyle Changes and Manage Existing Conditions
If you are at high risk of getting heart disease, change your lifestyle to control blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol. However, if you already have heart disease, your health care team will help you manage it to prevent it from progressing.
If you are suffering from a severe blockage of one of your arteries or a valve that needs repair or replacement, doctors recommend surgery. The most common surgeries are:
- Angioplasty — widening an artery that has become narrow due to plaque build-up
- Coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) — to improve blood flow by using a vein in another part of the body to create a new pathway around a blocked artery.
- Valve repair or replacement —to fix or replace a damaged valve in the heart.
- Transplant surgery — Although uncommon, if other treatments don’t work, patients may receive a healthy donor heart.
The Best Ways to Prevent Heart Disease
Despite its prevalence and toll on our health, heart disease remains one of the most preventable diseases you can have. The following steps can help you lower your risk for heart disease:
- Don’t smoke or use tobacco
- Stay at a healthy weight
- Get regular screenings
- Cut down on your unhealthy fat and cholesterol intake while increasing your fiber intake.
- Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids
- Do regular exercise, at least 30 minutes three times a week.
- Limit alcohol use
- Manage stress
- Get enough sleep every night, 8-10 hours.
- Manage existing health conditions
Live a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle!
A healthy lifestyle can help you prevent heart disease. But if you already have it, your choices each day affect your quality of life and how well your heart works. Controllable risk factors for coronary heart disease include high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity.
At PHWC, we work together so you can be in your healthiest state. With our expertise and programs, we help control diabetes, high blood pressure, and high blood cholesterol leading to a healthy heart!
Find out more about our Diabetes Reversal and Weight Loss Programs.