What is heart disease: Definitions, risk factors and prevention strategies

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February isn’t only about the candy and paper hearts you receive on Valentine’s Day – it’s also about the heart inside your body! Starting more than 60 years ago, the U.S. government has recognized February as American Heart Month. It is used as time to bring awareness to heart disease. And what better time than American Heart Month to learn the answer to the question: What is heart disease?

The leading cause of death in the U.S. for both men and women is heart disease. However, knowing definitions, risk factors and simple prevention strategies may help you avoid it.

What is heart disease?

The phrase “heart disease” is an umbrella term for many different cardiovascular conditions and is used in a general way to describe problems with the heart. The most common type of heart disease is coronary artery disease (CAD).

CAD occurs when there is a large amount of plaque in the wall of coronary arteries, or where the arteries supply blood to the heart. When the plaque builds up, it can cause the arteries to narrow, which ultimately limits or blocks blood flow to the heart.

There are other types of heart disease such as heart problems you are born with or structural heart complications. However, it is common to see the following problems associated with heart disease:

  • Heart failure occurs when the heart stops pumping a sufficient amount of blood and oxygen to support other organs in the body. It does not indicate that the heart has stopped beating but it does mean that it’s not working as well as it should.
  • Heart attacks occur when part of the heart muscle isn’t getting enough blood pumped through. It can cause severe damage if left untreated.
  • Arrythmias are irregular heartbeats that can either occur quickly or slowly. Arrythmias have the potential to be very serious and should be treated by a physician to determine the underlying cause.

Key risk factors for heart disease

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are certain medical conditions and lifestyle choices that increase your risk of developing heart disease.

Having multiple of the following lifestyle-related risk factors may be dangerous to your heart health:

  • Being overweight
  • Eating an unhealthy diet
  • Physical inactivity
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Smoking

Other medically-related risk factors include having:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity

Additionally, people who are 65 or older have a higher risk of developing heart disease, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA). As one ages, they might experience slight changes to their heart or blood vessels and unhealthy lifestyle choices may start to catch up to one’s heart health.

It is more common to develop a buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries or experience hardening of the arteries. However, heart disease is not a natural part of aging and it can be prevented with healthy lifestyle choices.

Strategies for preventing heart disease

You don’t have to be a certain age to start taking care of your heart. Small changes can end up having positive effects on your health in the long run.

The American Heart Association (AHA) breaks down heart disease prevention strategies by each age group, from your 20s up to older adults over the age of 60, highlighting helpful things to focus on at certain points in your life. Visit the AHA to learn more about what you can do at your current age to prevent heart disease.

A few prevention strategies that will work for all ages include:

Choose a healthy eating plan

Eating a heart-healthy diet means choosing foods that have low amounts of saturated fat, trans fat and sodium. A few helpful tips to follow are:

  • Eat fruits and vegetables with every meal
  • Opt for whole grains in your rice, bread, pasta, etc.
  • Have oily fish at least twice per week
  • Increase your intake of nuts, legumes and seeds
  • Try a few days out of the week where you eat a meatless meal
  • Select low-fat dairy products
  • Limit sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Cut back on red meat consumption

While the foods listed above are generally associated with a heart-healthy diet, it may not be advisable for everyone to follow. Please consult your physician before making any big changes to your diet.

A healthy eating plan can also help you control your weight. Maintaining a healthy weight is an important factor in preventing heart disease, as carrying extra weight can put increased stress on your blood vessels and heart.

Be physically active

The AHA suggests at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity (like a brisk walk or gentle cycling or swimming) or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity (like running, swimming laps or tennis) each week. It is also recommended to try a combination of both intensities and to incorporate muscle training and strengthening activities.

Please keep in mind that the AHA’s suggestions may not apply to everyone. It’s important to consult with your physician before starting an exercise plan.

Know the warning signs of a heart attack or stroke

It’s never too early to learn about the potential warning signs that come along with heart problems. It’s possible that one may not experience the typical numbness and severe chest pain that is usually associated with having a heart attack.

Some symptoms you should watch for include:

  • Any chest discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes
  • Discomfort in upper areas of the body such as the shoulders, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Other signs of cold sweats, nausea or lightheadedness

Symptoms can be intense and quick and other times they may come on slowly. If you experience any of the above symptoms, call 911 immediately.

It is common for symptoms to differ depending on your gender. Women oftentimes experience the less typical symptoms of a heart attack such as shortness of breath, cold sweats, nausea/vomiting and back pain.

If you are living with a high-risk condition such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, there are still things you can do to help prevent heart disease. The CDC recommends taking your medications as directed, monitoring your blood pressure and cholesterol and working with your health care team.

How home health can help

If you were recently diagnosed with a chronic condition and are considered homebound, you may be eligible for home health services.

Home health clinicians will educate you on your condition and provide practical management strategies to help you improve your quality of life and meet your specific health care goals. With their close access to your home environment, they can recommend specific changes to your diet and lifestyle that may put you on track to preventing a serious heart complication.

Enhabit Home Health & Hospice can work with your physician to help you get the care that you deserve. Visit our services page to learn more about our home health services and how you can get started.

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