Small but mighty, the heart is a unique organ in our body. It beats without conscious effort and impacts all of the major organ systems. It’s composed of special muscle fibers that allow it to carry out its main function, pumping freshly oxygenated blood throughout the body. With such an important role it’s hard to believe that this powerhouse is roughly the size of a human fist and weighs approximately 11 oz, it packs quite the punch!!
February is National Heart Health month, which aims to bring awareness to heart disease. It may surprise some that cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, ranking ahead of cancer and car accidents. Although it occurs at higher rates compared to other diseases, its risks and symptoms vary between women and men. In order to change the statistics related to cardiovascular disease, awareness on the subject and healthier lifestyle choices have to be implemented. So what is cardiovascular disease and why does it claim the lives of so many Americans?
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is an umbrella term that refers to diseases of the heart and blood vessels such as stroke, high blood pressure, and heart attack. The most known form of CVD is coronary artery disease (CAD). Coronary artery disease is caused by a waxy buildup (plaque) in the arterial walls of the heart. Plaque forms from cellular waste, cholesterol and lipid deposits. (1) When it accumulates in the arteries it narrows the passageway for continuous blood flow which is known as atherosclerosis.
If an individual doesn’t make changes in their diet and physical activity atherosclerosis will eventually lead to the arteries becoming blocked, inelastic, and harden. This condition is known as arteriosclerosis and is a precipitating factor in heart attacks.
Myocardial Infarction, known as a heart attack, is the result of a blocked coronary artery. When a plaque deposit ruptures in a coronary artery it injures the arterial wall and a blood clot (thrombus) forms. The presence of a thrombus reduces the continuous flow of oxygenated blood to the heart muscle. As a result of decreased oxygenated blood flow, an individual experiences (angina) chest pain (2) This is a critical period because prolonged deprivation of proper blood flow increases the chance for permanent heart damage and death. A heart attack is a life-changing event, it affects the individual and their family members. Predicting the likelihood of a heart attack can be done by knowing your risk factors.
Certain genetic predispositions increase the chance of developing heart disease and experiencing a heart attack. If there is a known history of heart disease in one’s family, the chances of that person developing CVD increase. Lifestyle choices, such as diet, physical activity, and stress play significant roles in heart health. Having a sedentary lifestyle and a diet high in unhealthy food can cause the body to respond negatively to stress. Identifying these factors can improve heart health.
Cardiovascular disease risk factors are categorized as primary and secondary risk factors. Primary risk factors refer to things that increase the possibility of having a heart attack and are viewed as controllable factors. Secondary risk factors contribute to the possibility of a heart attack and are subdivided into controllable and uncontrollable factors. (3)
Primary risk factors for a heart attack include inactivity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cigarette smoking, and obesity. These factors are considered to be controllable because each can be prevented by making healthier lifestyle choices through diet and behavior. Secondary risks are made up of controllable and uncontrollable factors. The controllable factors include emotional behavior and stress, while uncontrollable factors refer to age, gender, family history, race, and diabetes. Uncontrollable factors are things that can’t be changed by any means.
Diagnosis & Treatment
As a result of medical advancement and technology, cardiovascular disease can be diagnosed and treated in several ways. For individuals with a history or present with CVD symptoms, there are non-invasive tests that can be administered in order to determine the best treatment.
Electrocardiogram (EKG) is a test that records and measures the electrical activity, rate, and regularity throughout the heart. Electrodes are connected to specific parts of the chest which record the electrical conduction through the heart.
Echocardiogram is a procedure that uses sound waves to produce 2D images of the heart. These images allow physicians to evaluate the mechanical and structural functions of the heart as it contracts.
Exercise stress test is performed to determine how the heart works when it’s required to pump more blood during physical activity. This test is usually performed on a treadmill.
If these tests indicate that an individual does have CVD and at risk of a heart attack the following tests can be performed.
A coronary angiogram uses x-ray imaging to look at the heart’s blood vessels and to determine if there’s a restriction of blood flow to the heart.
Cardiac catheterization is an invasive procedure that can evaluate several heart functions such as oxygen levels, chamber pressure, and look for blockages. (4)
The advancements in medicine have allowed many individuals with cardiovascular disease to resume their lives after diagnosis. There are several lifestyle changes that one must adopt in order to remain healthy and prevent future recurrences. Diet has a significant impact on heart health and should be a top priority for those at risk of heart disease and those in good health. Reducing foods that are high in fat, sugar, and cholesterol can greatly reduce the risk of plaque and the diseases associated with it.
Stress is an unavoidable part of life and can be difficult to manage at times. Its effects impact our mental, spiritual, and heart health. Finding positive coping mechanisms for managing stress doesn’t require a significant amount of money. Whether you decide to walk in the park, listen to your favorite music or go to the gym, it’s important to find healthy outlets for stress in your life.
Surrounding oneself with positive people and thoughts can also have a positive impact on the heart. Support and encouragement from friends and family can be a motivating force to lead a healthier life. Making healthier lifestyle choices allows us to share and spend more time with the important people in our lives and at the end of the day that’s what matters the most.
Thanks for reading,