Every February we recognize American Heart Month. Every February we educate, we inform, and we encourage seniors and even younger adults to learn their personal risk factors, get educated on the signs and symptoms of heart attack and stroke, and make healthy lifestyle decisions. Why?Because education saves lives.
“Almost two-thirds (64%) of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease (CHD) have no previous symptoms,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and “Half of the men who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms.” That’s why education is key. If you don’t know your risk, you can’t take steps to reduce it.
Types of Heart Disease
Heart disease is not one, single condition. There are actually many different types of heart disease, all impacting the health of the cardiovascular system. Some of the most common types of heart disease include:
- Coronary artery disease (CAD) – The number one killer in America, CAD refers to plaque buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis) which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
- Cardiac ischemia – When CAD progresses to the point where the heart is not receiving enough oxygenated blood, ischemia occurs, and a heart attack is possible.
- Heart attack – Damage or death to a part of the heart, also called a myocardial infarction, caused by the progression of ischemia. A heart attack often results from a blood clot forming around a plaque in the arteries.
- Heart failure – Lifestyle factors and other cardiovascular diseases can lead to heart failure, which means the heart can’t pump hard enough or fast enough to supply your organs with the oxygen-rich blood they need to function.
- High blood pressure – High blood pressure refers to “the amount of force pushing outwards on your arterial walls.” High blood pressure can cause scarring, weakness, increase plaque buildup and other problems that increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. There are no symptoms of high blood pressure, so screening is essential.
- High cholesterol – Cholesterol can be bad (low-density lipoproteins or LDLs), which can clog the arteries, or good (high-density lipoproteins or HDLs). High triglyceride levels, included in total cholesterol, also increase your risk. Your diet contributes about 25 percent of your body’s total cholesterol, and genetics also play a role.
- Stroke – A stroke occurs when an obstruction in an artery (usually a blood clot) blocks blood flow to the brain, depriving it of oxygen. While strokes technically affect the brain, strokes and CHD share many of the same risk factors and are closely linked.
CHD is sometimes called the “silent killer.” That’s because the symptoms are often subtle, even completely unnoticeable to the individual. The only way to detect these underlying risk factors and conditions is through regular screenings by your physician.
Depending on your personal risk factors, your doctor may recommend simple high blood pressure and cholesterol screenings. If you have multiple risk factors, more complex tests like an EKG and stress test may be in order. There are some risk factors you can control, however:
- Don’t smoke, especially if you have high blood pressure.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Extra body fat, especially when it’s accumulated around the waist, can cause elevated triglycerides.
- Eat a well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet. Opt for omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and olive oil and get plenty of fiber. Avoid sugar, salt and bad cholesterol found in fried and processed foods.
- Manage conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol with medications and dietary changes.
- Exercise regularly, even if you’re not overweight. According to the American Heart Association guidelines, you should get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity.
- Avoid stress. Exercise is a great stress reducer, and activities like meditation can also help.