According to the American Heart Association, about 80% of heart disease is preventable. Routine exams and screenings can let you know whether you're at risk for cardiovascular problems. If you already have heart disease, it's not too late to take action. The right treatment can extend your lifespan and reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke. Learn more about what you can do to keep your heart healthy.

The term "heart disease" describes a variety of conditions that affect your heart. Some forms of heart disease are congenital or have been present since birth. Other types develop later in life. Heart disease can affect people of all ages, races, and socioeconomic groups.

All adults should talk to their doctor about regular heart disease screenings. Routine screenings can identify possible heart problems and risk factors. In some cases, your doctor may also perform specialized cardiac tests. These tests and screening tools help your doctor diagnose heart problems earlier.

What are Some Common Heart Problems?

When diagnosed early, CAD is often treatable. Unfortunately, many people with CAD don't realize they have it. CAD doesn't always cause symptoms so that it can go unnoticed for many years. Without treatment, CAD often leads to a heart attack or stroke.

High Blood Pressure

Also known as hypertension. This means the pressure in your arteries is consistently above the normal range. Blood pressure is written as two numbers, such as 122/78. The top number is the pressure when the heart beats, called "systolic". The bottom number is the pressure when the heart rests between beats, called "diastolic". Your blood pressure is considered "High" when it reaches 140 systolic or higher and/or 90 diastolic or higher. There are normally no other signs of high blood pressure. So it's important to see your doctor every year for a checkup. High blood pressure can lead to hardened arteries, stroke or heart attack.

Hardening of the Arteries

Also known as atherosclerosis. This is when your arteries become too narrow due to buildup. This buildup is usually caused by a fatty diet, smoking cigarettes, diabetes or hypertension. This limits the flow of blood to the heart and brain. Sometimes, this buildup can break open. When this happens, a blood clot forms and blocks blood flow in the artery. This can cause a heart attack or even stroke.

Heart Attacks

These occur when blood flow to your heart is blocked, usually by a blood clot. If not treated quickly, the heart muscle begins to die. Each year almost 800,000 Americans have a heart attack. The following are the most common signs and symptoms of a heart attack:

  • Chest discomfort. 
    It is often in the center or left side of the chest. It usually lasts more than a few minutes. It may go away and come back. It can feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain. It also can feel like heartburn or indigestion.
  • Shortness of breath. 
    Sometimes this is your only symptom. You may get it before or during the chest discomfort. It can happen when you are resting or doing a little bit of physical activity.
  • Discomfort in the upper body. 
    You may feel pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, shoulders, neck, jaw, or upper part of the stomach.

Other symptoms include: nausea, vomiting, dizziness, lightheadedness, and a cold sweat. Sometimes women will have different symptoms than men. For example, they are more likely to feel fatigued for no reason.

Heart Failure

This means that your heart isn’t pumping blood properly. Heart failure does not mean that your heart has stopped or is about to stop working. But the body doesn’t get all the blood and oxygen it needs. Common causes of heart failure are coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. It is more common in people who are 65 years old or older, African Americans, people who are overweight, and people who have had a heart attack. Men have a higher rate of heart failure than women.

Stroke

This happens when a blood vessel that feeds the brain gets blocked or bursts. Without blood, brain cells begin to die. "Mini-strokes" or transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), occur when the blood supply to the brain is briefly interrupted. Major risk factors for stroke include: High blood pressure, Smoking, Diabetes, High cholesterol, Heart disease, Abnormal heart rhythm.

What are the Symptoms of Heart Disease?

In the early stages, heart disease often has no symptoms. Some people may notice slight shortness of breath or dull chest pain, while others may tire quickly. But signs can be subtle and hard to see. Many people with heart disease assume they're just getting older. They often fail to report their symptoms to their doctor.

As heart disease progresses, it can cause:

  • Pain in jaw, neck, or shoulder
  • Numbness or weakness
  • Indigestion
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Fluttering in the chest
  • Grayish or bluish skin
  • Swelling in legs, abdomen, or face

The sooner your heart disease is detected, the better the outcome. Keep an eye out for any changes in your body or energy levels. If you notice a new symptom, contact your doctor right away. They can determine whether this symptom is a sign of heart disease.

Who is at Risk for Heart Disease?

Anyone can develop heart disease, but men are generally at higher risk throughout their life. In women, the risk of heart disease increases after menopause. Both men and women are more likely to experience heart problems after age 65.

About half of all Americans have at least one of the three key risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. Some of the risk factors for heart disease cannot be controlled, such as your age or family history. But you can take steps to lower your risk by changing the factors you can control.

Many people with heart disease have a family history of heart problems. You're more likely to have heart disease if one of your parents had it. Be sure to let your doctor know if anyone in your family has experienced a heart attack or stroke.

High blood pressure and high cholesterol increase your risk of heart problems as well. Leading a healthy lifestyle helps keep your blood pressure and cholesterol in check, but genetic factors can sometimes raise blood pressure or cholesterol levels. Tell your doctor if you have family members with these conditions. You might need to take medication to lower your risk of heart disease.

Smoking, obesity, and poor diet significantly increase your risk of heart problems. Improving your lifestyle can help keep your heart healthy. Your doctor can offer guidance on weight loss and smoking cessation.

Causes for Increased Risk of Heart Disease

Medical Conditions

  1. High Blood Pressure
    High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease. It is a medical condition that occurs when the pressure of the blood in your arteries and other blood vessels is too high. The high pressure, if not controlled, can affect your heart and other major organs of your body, including your kidneys and brain.
  2. High Cholesterol
    Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made by the liver or found in certain foods. Your liver makes enough for your body’s needs, but we often get more cholesterol from the foods we eat. If we take in more cholesterol than the body can use, the extra cholesterol can build up in the walls of the arteries, including those of the heart. This leads to narrowing of the arteries and can decrease the blood flow to the heart, brain, kidneys, and other parts of the body.
  3. Diabetes
    Diabetes mellitus also increases the risk for heart disease. Your body needs glucose (sugar) for energy. Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas that helps move glucose from the food you eat to your body’s cells. If you have diabetes, your body doesn’t make enough insulin, can’t use its own insulin as well as it should, or both.
    Read our guide for more information on preventing and living with Diabetes.

Unhealthy Behaviors

  1. Fatty Diets
    Diets high in saturated fats, trans fat, and cholesterol have been linked to heart disease and related conditions, such as atherosclerosis. Also, too much salt (sodium) in the diet can raise blood pressure levels.
  2. Lacl of Physical Activity
    Not getting enough physical activity can lead to heart disease. It also can increase the chances of having other medical conditions that are risk factors, including obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
  3. Obesity
    Obesity is excess body fat. Obesity is linked to higher “bad” cholesterol and triglyceride levels and to lower “good” cholesterol levels. In addition to heart disease, obesity can also lead to high blood pressure and diabetes.
  4. Too Much Alcohol
    Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure levels and the risk for heart disease. It also increases levels of triglycerides, a form of cholesterol, which can harden your arteries.
  5. Smoking Cigarettes
    Cigarette smoking can damage the heart and blood vessels, which increases your risk for heart conditions such as atherosclerosis and heart attack. Also, nicotine raises blood pressure, and carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen that your blood can carry. Exposure to other people’s secondhand smoke can increase the risk for heart disease even for nonsmokers.

Family History

Unfortunately, a factor you can't control that will likely play some role in high blood pressure, heart disease, and other related conditions is genetics. The risk for heart disease can increase even more.

How Is Heart Disease Treated?

If you're diagnosed with heart disease, your primary care doctor may send you to a cardiologist. A cardiologist is a doctor who specializes in heart problems. They can help you develop a heart disease treatment plan.

There are many forms of heart disease, and each one requires specialized care. Your cardiologist can review your options.

Medication often improves your heart function and prevents health problems. Lifestyle changes can also cut your risk of heart disease, but if you have a life-threatening heart problem, your cardiologist may suggest surgery. Heart surgery helps clear blockages and clots from your arteries. It can also repair damage caused by an injury or infection.

After surgery, you may need to spend some time in a rehabilitation facility. The rehab team can help you regain your strength and mobility.

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