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As we age, chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes become more prevalent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 610,000 people die of heart disease annually in the United States. This means that heart disease is the number one killer of men and women throughout the country. It’s important to understand the signs, symptoms, and risk factors of heart disease so you can take better care of your health.
Signs and Symptoms
In some cases, people who have heart disease may not present any symptoms; a heart attack or stroke is the first sign. In other instances, patients may not even know they’ve had a heart attack. According to a study from May of 2016 published in the journal Circulation, approximately 45 percent or more of heart attacks are “silent,” which means the symptoms were so subtle that the patient never knew it happened.
It’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of a heart attack and heart disease so you can seek treatment as soon as possible. Any new shortness of breath or chest pain that worsens with physical exertion is something to be concerned about. High levels of cholesterol and triglycerides are other reasons for concern. It’s important to have your blood tested regularly so you can monitor these levels. High blood pressure is another indicator of potential heart disease.
Some other warning signs and symptoms can include:
- Unusual fatigue that is persistent
- Jaw pain, upper back pain, or pain in the left arm
- A sudden onset of sweating along with nausea or indigestion
- A heavy weight or squeezing feeling or “fullness” of the chest
- An inability to catch your breath
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor right away. If the problems last for longer than a few minutes, emergency care is recommended. The sooner you can get medical attention, the less damage the heart attack will do to your body.
When it comes to preventing heart disease and understanding good health, there are several risk factors you should be aware of. Those who live a sedentary life or who participate in very limited physical activity are considered at risk. People who smoke are at risk for not only heart disease but lung cancer and a variety of other cancers. If you have a family history of heart disease, you should certainly visit your doctor regularly so you can be monitored, since you are also at a higher risk.
People who are overweight or who eat an unhealthy diet tend to be at a higher risk, since these problems put more burden on the heart muscle, making it work harder to pump blood throughout the body. Your age is another factor, since as we age, the risk of heart disease naturally increases. Overall, people with high blood pressure, those who smoke, and patients with diabetes are considered to be people at the highest risk levels.
Getting your blood pressure checked regularly is a simple way to monitor your heart health. Elevated blood pressure can mean several things, but if your doctor suspects it’s an indicator of heart disease, they’ll typically follow it up with blood work. This blood work should check your current cholesterol and triglyceride levels. If needed, the doctor may also perform a chest X-ray and a physical exam. Be sure to tell them about your family medical history as well as your own personal medical history.
There may be several other necessary tests that can help determine if you have heart disease. These can include:
- Electrocardiogram: An ECG records electrical signals that indicate any irregularities found in your heart’s structure and its rhythm. If the ECG is performed while you’re exercising, it is known as a stress electrocardiogram.
- Holter monitor: This portable device constantly records your heart’s electrical activity to detect any rhythm problems. In most cases, your doctor will recommend that use it continually for 24 to 72 hours.
- Echocardiogram: This test is an ultrasound of your chest that shows your doctor a more detailed picture of your heart’s overall function and its structure.
- Stress test: Sometimes referred to as a treadmill or exercise test, a stress test elevates your heart rate with exercise. The doctor observes how the heart responds using imaging and other devices to get a better idea of your heart’s condition.
- Cardiac catheterization: This process involves using X-rays while your doctor threads a catheter through an artery in the groin or arm into your heart. The catheter measures the pressure inside the heart chamber, and your doctor may inject a dye that shows up on an X-ray so they can observe how the blood flows through your heart and blood vessels.
- CT scan: A doctor uses CT images that are created by X-rays in order to get a better look at your heart and chest.
- MRI: This test is similar to a CT scan. An MRI machine uses magnets to show the doctor more detailed images of the heart and chest area.
If you are diagnosed with heart disease, your physician may recommend a variety of methods to treat it. Medications and surgery are the most common forms of treatment.
- Aspirin: This drug is an anticoagulant that prevents blood clots, allowing everything to continue moving through the veins and arteries.
- Beta-blockers: These drugs are made to lower blood pressure and work well in treating angina and arrhythmias and preventing future heart attacks.
- Statins: This type of drug lowers cholesterol levels, preventing the buildup of plaque inside the arteries.
- Diuretics: Commonly referred to as water pills, this type of medication rids the body of excess fluid, which brings blood pressure down and reduces swelling.
- Vasodilators: Also called nitrates, this type of drug relaxes the blood vessels to increase the supply of blood and oxygen to the heart. It reduces the workload on your vascular system to help ease chest pain.
- Angioplasty: A doctor use a catheter with a small balloon on the end, threading it into a clogged artery. The balloon is inflated at the site of the blockage and pushes the plaque against the artery walls. This process creates more space for blood to flow through, and then the balloon and catheter are removed.
- Stent placement: These small, flexible tubes are inserted into a blocked artery to prop it open. The stent makes the blood vessel bigger to allow better blood flow. Stents are left inside the artery.
- Coronary artery bypass grafting: This procedure is the most common form of heart surgery. A healthy vein or artery is grafted or surgically connected to a blocked coronary artery. The result is that a bypass of the blocked portion is created, allowing blood to circumvent the problem area and directly reach the heart.
- Heart valve repair or replacement: A doctor replaces or repairs a faulty heart valve, sometimes using a man-made or biological valve. This ensures that blood will not leak into places it should not be.
- Pacemaker: This device is used to correct heart arrhythmias and is small enough to be implanted into the chest. It sends electrical currents to the heart to help control its rhythm.
- Heart transplant: This surgery is typically considered a last resort and is only available to certain patients who have end-stage congestive heart failure. The surgeons remove the old, diseased heart and replace it with a healthy one that has come from a donor.
The best way to prevent heart disease is to learn how to reduce your risk. It’s much easier and safer to stop the disease before it starts. Of course, some things cannot be changed, like age or family history, but these steps can help to keep your level of risk under control:
- Eat a healthy diet, avoiding sodium and saturated fats. Choose healthy fats, whole grains, lean proteins, and vegetables to improve your heart health.
- Lose weight. When you’re obese, it puts additional strain on the heart. Try to manage your weight or lose extra weight, particularly if you’re already at risk for heart disease.
- Manage chronic diseases. If you have diabetes or another chronic disease, it can increase your risk of heart disease. Keep your current diseases managed properly to help reduce your risk.
- Quit smoking. Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do to improve your overall health and your heart health. Talk to your doctor about possible programs, support groups, or medications that can help you quit.
- Limit your alcohol intake. Drinking alcohol is very damaging to the heart. If you drink, make sure it’s very limited and only on special occasions.
- Exercise. Staying active is extremely important for a healthy heart. Move as much as possible, and do low-impact exercises like walking, swimming, or bicycling as often as you can.
- Get more/better sleep. The CDC has found that adults who sleep less than seven hours a night are more likely to have a variety of health problems, some of which raise the risk of heart disease. When you sleep, your body is repairing itself, so aim for at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night for better overall health.
- Stress out less. Stress can be extremely harmful and can also cause behavioral triggers like overeating, which can lead to obesity. Try to relax and reduce stress for improved heart health.
Additional Heart Disease Resources
- Heart Disease Facts and Statistics
- Heart Attack Symptoms
- Heart Disease and Stroke
- Heart Medication
- Listen to Your Heart: Learn About Heart Disease
- Signs and Risks of Heart Problems in Women
- Signs of a Heart Attack
- Heart Disease Basics
- Heart Disease Risk in Women
- Heart Disease Risk Factor Analysis Test
- Stress Can Increase Your Risk for Heart Disease
- Heart Disease Prevention
- Keeping a Healthy Body Weight
- About Heart Disease
- Common Medical Procedures for Heart Conditions
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