How Heart Disease Works
How Heart Disease Works
The heart is a muscle that needs oxygen and nutrients found in your blood in order to pump more blood rich with these essential ingredients to other parts of your body. The blood is delivered to the heart's walls via the coronary arteries. When these arteries become blocked or narrowed, and the heart's muscle walls are starved of vital oxygen and nutrients, a heart attack occurs.
It is important for you to realize that heart disease is a lifelong condition. Making changes for better health today enables your heart to be healthier, thus making you healthier for you and the ones you love.
The Warning Signs of Heart Attack
- Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
- Pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck or arms.
- Chest discomfort with lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath.
- As a woman, YOU may have these less common warning signs:
- Atypical chest pain, stomach or abdominal pain.
- Nausea or dizziness without chest pain.
- Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing without chest pain.
- Unexplained anxiety, weakness or fatigue.
- Palpitations, cold sweat or paleness.
Risk Factors of Heart Disease
Risk factors are conditions or habits that increase your chances of developing a disease. There are two types of heart disease risk factors - those you can't change (non-modifiable) and those that you can control (modifiable).
Non-modifiable risk factors include family history of early heart disease and age. Age, for women, becomes a risk factor after menopause because a woman's production of estrogen drops. Fortunately, many heart disease risk factors can be controlled by making changes in lifestyle and, in some cases, by taking medication.
Modifiable risk factors for heart disease include:
Smoking: Cigarette smoking greatly increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as lung cancer and other serious diseases. There is simply no safe way to smoke. But the rewards of quitting are enormous. Just one year after you stop smoking, your heart disease risk will drop by more than half.
High Blood Pressure: High blood pressure can lead to heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure and kidney disease. Usually, blood pressure is expressed as two numbers, such as 120/80 mmHg (millimeters of mercury). Blood pressure is considered "high" when it is 140/90 or above (or when it is 130/80 or above in people with Diabetes or Chronic Kidney Disease). But even "high normal" blood pressure (130-139 over 85-89) raises your risk of heart disease.
High Blood Cholesterol: Cholesterol travels in the blood in packages called lipoproteins. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is often called "bad" cholesterol because too much LDL in your blood can lead to blockages in the arteries - and a possible heart attack. The higher your LDL number, the higher your risk of heart disease. Another type of cholesterol is high-density lipoprotein (HDL), also known as "good" cholesterol. That's because HDL helps remove cholesterol from your blood. An LDL level of 160 or above is high; less than 100 is optimal. An HDL level of less than 40 increases your risk for heart disease; 60 or higher is protective. Another key number is your total cholesterol, which should be less than 200.
Overweight/Obesity: Sixty-two percent of all American women age 20 and older are overweight - about 33 percent of them are considered obese. If you are overweight or obese, you are more likely to develop heart disease, even if you have no other risk factors. Being overweight also leads to other risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol. Maintaining a healthy weight is key in heart disease prevention.
Physical Inactivity: Not getting regular physical activity increases your risk for heart disease, as well as other risk factors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and overweight. And, for older women especially, physical inactivity increases the chances of developing osteoporosis, which in turn raises the risk of broken bones. Research shows that as little as 30 minutes of moderate activity on most - preferably all - days of the week helps to protect the heart. Some examples include a brisk walk, gardening or house cleaning.
Diabetes: Diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, and other diseases. The type of diabetes that adults most commonly develop is "type 2." You are more likely to develop this disease if you are overweight (especially with extra weight around your middle), physically inactive, or have a family history of diabetes. Diabetes can be detected with a blood sugar test.
Are You At Risk?
To protect your heart health, it is important to find out your personal risk for heart disease. Having more than one risk factor is especially serious, because risk factors tend to compound, worsening each other's effects. Fortunately, you have tremendous power to prevent heart disease, and you can start today.
The first step is to see your doctor for a thorough checkup. Tell your doctor you want help in achieving your goal of heart health. During your next doctor's appointment, be sure to ask the key questions about your heart health we've listed in the pink box to the right.