Heart Disease 101
Heart disease is a broad term used to describe a range of diseases that affect your heart. The various diseases that fall under the umbrella of heart disease include diseases of your blood vessels, such as coronary artery disease; heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias); heart infections; and heart defects you're born with (congenital heart defects).
The term "heart disease" is often used interchangeably with "cardiovascular disease." Cardiovascular disease generally refers to conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, chest pain (angina) or stroke. Other heart conditions, such as infections and conditions that affect your heart's muscle, valves or beating rhythm, also are considered forms of heart disease.
Many forms of heart disease can be prevented or treated with healthy lifestyle choices.
Heart disease risk factors include:
· Your age. Simply getting older increases your risk of damaged and narrowed arteries and weakened or thickened heart muscle, which contribute to heart disease.
· Your sex. Men are generally at greater risk of heart disease. However, the risk for a woman increases after menopause.
· Family history. A family history of heart disease increases your risk of coronary artery disease, especially if a parent developed it at an early age (before age 55 for a male relative, such as your brother or father, and 65 for a female relative, such as your mother or sister).
· Smoking. Nicotine constricts your blood vessels, and carbon monoxide can damage their inner lining, making them more susceptible to atherosclerosis. Heart attacks are more common in smokers than in nonsmokers.
· Poor diet. A diet that's high in fat, salt and cholesterol can contribute to the development of heart disease.
· High blood pressure. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can result in hardening and thickening of your arteries, narrowing the vessels through which blood flows.
· High blood cholesterol levels. High levels of cholesterol in your blood can increase the risk of formation of plaques and atherosclerosis. Plaques can be caused by a high level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, known as "bad" cholesterol, or a low level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, known as "good" cholesterol.
· Diabetes. Diabetes increases your risk of heart disease. Both conditions share similar risk factors, such as obesity and high blood pressure.
· Obesity. Excess weight typically worsens other risk factors.
· Physical inactivity. Lack of exercise also is associated with many forms of heart disease and some of its other risk factors, as well.
· High stress. Unrelieved stress in your life may damage your arteries as well as worsen other risk factors for heart disease.
· Poor hygiene. Not regularly washing your hands and failure to establish other habits that can help prevent viral or bacterial infections can put you at risk of heart infections, especially if you already have an underlying heart condition. Poor dental health also may contribute to heart disease.
Heart disease can be improved — or even prevented — by making certain lifestyle changes. The following changes can help anyone who wants to improve his or her heart health:
· Stop smoking. Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease, especially atherosclerosis. Nicotine constricts blood vessels and forces your heart to work harder, and carbon monoxide reduces oxygen in your blood and damages the lining of your blood vessels. If you smoke, quitting is the best way to reduce your risk of heart disease and its complications.
· Control your blood pressure. Ask your doctor for a blood pressure measurement at least every two years. He or she may recommend more frequent measurements if your blood pressure is higher than normal or you have a history of heart disease. Optimal blood pressure is less than 120 systolic and 80 diastolic, as measured in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).
· Check your cholesterol. Ask your doctor for a baseline cholesterol test when you're in your 20s and then at least every five years. If your test results aren't within desirable ranges, your doctor may recommend more frequent measurements. Most people should aim for an LDL level below 130 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), or 3.4 millimoles per liter (mmol/L). If you have other risk factors for heart disease, your target LDL may be below 100 mg/dL (2.6 mmol/L). If you're at very high risk of heart disease - if you've already had a heart attack or have diabetes, for example - your target LDL level is below 70 mg/dL (1.8 mmol/L).
· Keep diabetes under control. If you have diabetes, tight blood sugar control can help reduce the risk of heart disease.
· Get moving. If you have heart disease, exercise helps you achieve and maintain a healthy weight and control diabetes, elevated cholesterol and high blood pressure — all risk factors for heart disease. If you have a heart arrhythmia or heart defect, there may be some restrictions on the activities you can do, so be sure to talk to your doctor first. With your doctor's OK, aim for 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. Even if you can't make time for one 30- to 60-minute exercise session, you can still benefit from breaking up your activity into several 10-minute sessions.
· Eat healthy foods. A heart-healthy diet based on fruits, vegetables and whole grains — and low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium — can help you control your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol. Eating one or two servings of fish a week also is beneficial.
· Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight increases your risk of heart disease. Weight loss is especially important for people who have large waist measurements — more than 40 inches (101.6 centimeters, or cm) for men and more than 35 inches (88.9 cm) for women — because people with this body shape are more likely to develop diabetes and heart disease.
· Manage stress. Reduce stress as much as possible. Practice healthy techniques for managing stress, such as muscle relaxation and deep breathing.
· Practice good hygiene habits. Staying away from other people when they are sick and regularly washing your hands can not only prevent heart infections but also can help prevent viral or bacterial infections that can put stress on your heart if you already have heart disease. Also, brushing and flossing your teeth regularly can prevent germs in your mouth from making their way to plaques in your heart, which could worsen cardiovascular disease.
· Get a flu shot. If you have cardiovascular disease, you're at a greater risk of having a heart attack should you catch the flu. Getting a flu shot decreases this risk.
In addition to healthy lifestyle changes, remember the importance of regular medical checkups. Early detection and treatment can set the stage for a lifetime of better heart health.
There are several alternative medicines that may be effective in lowering cholesterol and preventing some types of heart disease, including:
· Blond psyllium
· Coenzyme Q10
· Oats and oat bran
· Omega-3 fatty acids
· Plant stanols and sterols, such as beta-sitosterol and sitostanol
As with any alternative medicine, talk to your doctor before adding any new supplements to your treatment regimen. Even natural medicines and herbal supplements can interact with medications you're taking.
By the MAYO CLINIC