February is American Heart Month and a good time to start thinking about how to improve your health. Prevention, however, is key to a healthy heart.
For instance, lifestyle modifications such as eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and reducing your stress are crucial in managing and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Sometimes, medical intervention such as surgery or medications may be needed.
What Is Heart Disease?
Heart disease – also known as cardiovascular disease (CVD) – refers to a class of diseases that involve the heart or blood vessels, according to the American Heart Association.
Heart disease includes conditions such as:
- Coronary artery disease (CAD)
- Heart failure
- Valvular heart diseases
- Disorders affecting the blood vessels
If left untreated, CVD can lead to complications like heart attacks, strokes, or other serious medical issues.
Related: Cardiovascular Health and Avoiding Problems with Your Heart
Who Is Affected by Heart Disease?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 17.9 million people around the world die of CVD every year. In the United States, heart disease is the leading cause of death, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC also says that an estimated 695,000 people (1 in every 5 deaths) died from heart disease in 2021. That would be approximately 384,886 men or about 1 in every 4 male deaths and 310,661 women or about 1 in every 5 female deaths.
For most racial and ethnic groups in the United States, heart disease is the leading cause of death. According to the CDC, these groups include “African American, American Indian, Alaska Native, Hispanic, and white men. For women from the Pacific Islands and Asian American, American Indian, Alaska Native, and Hispanic women, heart disease is second only to cancer.”
Understanding the gender and ethnic differences is crucial for healthcare providers when they are identifying symptoms, assessing risk factors, and prescribing treatment. It’s also important to understand women may present with various symptoms and different risk factors than men.
The CDC estimates that the overall cost of heart disease was about $239.9 billion each year between 2018-2019. That cost included different factors such as “the cost of health care services, medicines, and lost productivity due to death.”
What Is the Difference in Symptoms Between a Heart Attack and a Stroke?
A heart attack and a stroke (an interruption of a blood supply to the brain) are both medical emergencies and require medical attention as soon as possible. However, they have different symptoms.
According to the UK’s National Health Service, heart attack symptoms include:
- Chest pain or pain in different parts of the body (arms, neck, jaw, back, and stomach), especially a feeling of tightness in the chest
- Nausea and vomiting
- Difficulty breathing
The CDC notes that stroke symptoms include:
- Pain, weakness, or numbness in the legs and/or arms, especially on one side of the body
- Sudden confusion
- Difficulty speaking or understanding speech
- Vision problems
There is a quick set of tests that you can perform to determine if someone is having a stroke, according to the CDC. Knowing what to do can be easily remembered by using the acronym “FAST”:
Face: Ask for a smile. Does one side of the person’s face droop?
Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Is one arm drifting downward?
Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is his/her speech slurred or strange?
Time: If you see any of these signs, call 911 right away.
Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors
There are various risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Having one or more risk factors can increase your risk of developing heart disease.
Some risk factors cannot be changed. According to researchers, some risk factors that cannot be changed include:
- Age: Aging can cause changes in the heart and blood vessels. People age 65 and older are much more likely than younger people to suffer heart disease.
- Gender: Men generally have a higher rate of heart disease than women. However, studies have shown that after an acute cardiovascular event, women have a greater death rate and a worse prognosis, according to researchers.
- Ethnicity: People belonging to certain ethnic groups may be more vulnerable to heart problems.
- Genetic predisposition: Certain diseases run in families, so a family history of heart disease (especially in a first-degree relative) is a risk factor. However, leading a healthy lifestyle can help reduce the risk of developing heart disease for people who are genetically predisposed to heart disease.
The good news is that you can change or reduce some of your risk factors by altering your lifestyle. These changeable risk factors include:
- Lowering your cholesterol: Elevated levels of LDL (“bad cholesterol”) and low levels of HDL (“good cholesterol”) contribute to plaque formation in arteries. You can reduce a bad cholesterol level by eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly. If you have a very high LDL level, a physician can prescribe a cholesterol-lowering medication, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Reducing high blood pressure: An elevated blood pressure (hypertension) increases the workload on the heart and blood vessels. High blood pressure is also called a “silent killer” because it usually has no symptoms. You can lower your blood pressure with lifestyle changes or medicine to reduce your risk for heart disease and heart attacks.
- Reducing your triglycerides level: Triglycerides are a type of fat that is found in your blood. They are used to store unused calories and provide energy when your body requires it. A too-high level of triglycerides can lead to a painful inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) and can cause artery problems. However, your triglycerides level can be lowered through a healthy diet, getting exercise or using medicine.
- Managing your diabetes: A high level of glucose in your blood (Type I or Type II diabetes) can lead to damaged blood vessels, increasing the risk of CVD and heart attacks. Eating a balanced diet in addition to getting regular exercise and a healthy lifestyle can be useful in preventing diabetes.
- Cutting out smoking: Tobacco smoke damages blood vessels, narrows the arteries, increases blood pressure, and reduces oxygen in the blood. Exposure to secondhand smoke and third-hand smoke can also increase the risk for heart disease, even for nonsmokers.
- Decreasing your weight: Excess body fat, especially around the abdomen, is linked to CVD risk. Following an unhealthy lifestyle including eating an unhealthy diet and not getting enough exercise can cause you to become overweight or obese.
- Improving an unhealthy diet: Diets that are high in saturated and trans fats, salt, and low in fruits and vegetables contribute to your CVD risk. Eating a balanced diet with a plenty of fruits, vegetables, protein, and complex carbohydrates and reducing your consumption of fat, sugar, and salt will significantly lower your risk of heart disease.
- Improving your physical activity: Regular physical activity can lower your risk for heart disease, and any amount of exercise is always recommended according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Reducing your alcohol consumption: Heavy drinking can raise blood pressure and contribute to heart problems.
- Lowering your stress: A high stress level can raise your blood pressure and serve as a trigger for a heart attack or other heart problems such as angina). Talk with a professional counselor so you can learn how to reduce and manage your stress.
Related: A Colorful Plate Is Good for Your Health
Creating a Heart-Healthy Partnership with Your Healthcare Provider
There have been various public health initiatives to educate people about heart disease, including:
- Widespread education to increase public awareness of heart disease risk factors
- Promoting healthy behaviors and creating environments that support heart health
- Implementing preventive programs
- Encouraging regular health check-ups and regular screening
- Educating the public about the importance of a balanced diet, regular exercise, and smoking cessation.
- Empowering communities to make informed choices and ultimately reduce the prevalence of heart disease
Also, meeting with your healthcare provider during regularly check-ups and asking many questions about your risk factors can reduce your risk of heart disease. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends that you ask your healthcare provider these questions during an annual checkup:
- What is my risk of developing heart disease?
- What is my blood pressure? What does it mean for me, and what do I need to do about it?
- What are my cholesterol numbers? What do they mean for me, and what do I need to do about them?
- What is my body mass index (BMI) and waist measurement? Do I need to lose weight for my health?
- What is my blood sugar level, and does it mean I’m at risk for diabetes?
- What other screening tests for heart disease do I need? How often should I return for checkups for my heart health?
- How can we work together to help me quit smoking?
- How much physical activity do I need to help protect my heart?
- What is a heart-healthy eating plan for me? Should I see a registered dietitian or qualified nutritionist to learn more about healthy eating?
- How can I tell when I’m having a heart attack?
During American Heart Month, Take the Time to Get Educated about Heart Disease
American Heart Month is a good time to educate yourself about heart disease risk factors and what you can do to lower your risk. Your healthcare provider can also provide useful information; be sure to consult your healthcare provide for advice on exercise programs and healthy diets.