doctor holding a toy heart to the screen

During the month of Valentine’s Day, we tend to think of the human heart in terms of love, emotional strength, and goodness. The heart is also our body’s essential engine, beating 100,000 times a day, pumping oxygen and nutrients throughout our system. Sadly, on the whole, our heart engines are not very healthy. 

Heart disease has become the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, a loss of almost 700,000 lives a year, or 29 percent of the annual total. Over 7 million people die from heart disease every year worldwide.

Many women are particularly fearful about getting breast cancer, and that’s understandable, but heart disease actually causes more death in woman than all forms of cancer combined. Heart disease is more common in women than men. While true that one in 31 American women dies from breast cancer every year, 1 out of 3 deaths is from heart disease.  

Coronary Artery Disease

Coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease. Coronary artery disease develops when the tiny blood vessels that provide most of the blood, oxygen, and nutrients to your heart become compromised or diseased. Deposits containing cholesterol, called plaques, and the resulting inflammation begin to form layers and can significantly reduce the amount of blood your heart gets and, in some cases, completely block your coronary arteries. 

As the arteries get narrower and harder you may begin to get symptoms such as chest pains (angina) and shortness of breath with exercise or stress. A heart attack can occur when the blockage reduces blood flow completely.

Coronary artery disease is the root cause of both heart attack and heart failure. Small, even undetected heart attacks can weaken the heart’s pumping ability. A significant heart attack can bring on what is called acute heart failure that must be treated quickly. 

Biology and Risk Factors

It is true that there is a genetic factor in heart disease, but the influence of genes is far outweighed by environment and behavior. High cholesterol, certain arrythmias (an irregular heartbeat) can run in families and raise risk. But, two large studies from Northwestern Medicine confirm that maintaining a healthy lifestyle has the greatest impact on cardiovascular health. 

It should be mentioned that other factors can increase your family’s risk. Statistics show that African-Americans face higher risks for high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Research shows that chronic stress raises cortisol levels which interfere with the ability of blood vessels to function properly. The stress from challenges ranging from weathering disparities, unequal access to healthcare, and the myriad stressors from pervasive discrimination take a toll on blood vessel health. Statistics also indicate that about 1 in 3 Hispanics will have high blood pressure, and nearly half will develop high blood cholesterol.

How Are Heart Disease and Stroke Related?

Heart disease narrows the arteries that lead to both the heart and the brain. This narrowing, along with high blood pressure, is a major risk factor for stroke as well as heart attack. Strokes happen when the brain is deprived of oxygen from a narrowed artery or from a clot that becomes dislodged and occludes blood flow. A stroke can also be caused from a blood vessel that bursts from high blood pressure. 

What is it like to live with heart disease?

It is hard to give up our favorite (not so healthy) foods, and motivate ourselves to exercise to prevent something that might happen in the future. But, take a minute to imagine how your life would be changed if your heart “engine” could no longer work the way it has before. Just walking up a slight hill becomes very hard. Maybe golfing or gardening is no longer a source of fun and enjoyment. Loss of blood flow can cause dizziness, fainting, and shortness of breath. Your heart’s rhythm also might get thrown off, giving you palpitations that make it hard to sleep. You might get swelling in your legs, ankles, feet, and organs because your stressed kidneys are holding on to more water and salt than usual. 

Read more on keeping your heart engine healthy in part 2, next week.

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