Heart disease is the leading cause of death – here’s how to prevent and treat it
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 647,000 Americans die from heart disease annually – a total of one in four deaths – making it the leading cause of death in the United States.
Heart disease encompasses a number of heart health problems. For example, you may know someone who has had a heart attack, but that’s just one of many types of heart disease. Most of the time, heart disease shows no obvious symptoms, which can make recognition difficult.
But with routine doctor visits, you can understand your heart disease risk and work to prevent serious health complications. Here’s what you should know.
Types of heart disease
Heart disease refers to a group of conditions that directly affect the heart muscle or surrounding arteries, which supply blood to the heart. Several types of heart disease can occur together, and having one can increase the risk of developing another.
An arrhythmia is when there are irregularities with the heart rate or rhythm. Heart rate is controlled by the sinus node, a group of cells located at the top of the heart that send out electrical signals to keep the heart from beating properly.
Usually, a normal resting heart rate is between 60 bpm and 100 bpm. If it is consistently higher or lower, it could indicate that your heart’s electrical system is not functioning properly.
These are the two main types of arrhythmias:
- Tachycardia This is when your heart beats too fast. It is characterized by a resting heart rate of 100 bpm or more. Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is the most common type and, according to the CDC, about 2.7-6.1 million US adults are affected.
- Bradycardia This is when your heart beats too slowly. It is characterized by a resting heart rate of 50 bpm or less. However, in some cases, bradycardia can be a sign of good health, as elite athletes often have resting heart rates of up to 40 bpm.
Coronary heart disease
Ischemic heart disease, also known as ischemic heart disease, occurs when coronary arteries become damaged over time. It is the most common type of heart disease and, according to the CDC, led to over 365,000 deaths in 2017.
Usually, the coronary arteries carry blood to the heart, providing it with oxygen and vital nutrients. But coronary artery disease occurs when cholesterol builds up and narrows these arteries – a process called atherosclerosis – and blocks blood flow to the heart.
A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when blood flow to the heart is cut off, damaging the heart muscle. According to the CDC, someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds in the United States.
About 14% of heart attacks are fatal. Heart attacks are generally not as dangerous as cardiac arrest, which is fatal 89% of the time. Read more about the difference between heart attack and cardiac arrest here.
There are often clear signs of a heart attack, such as:
- Overwhelming discomfort or heaviness in the chest, often in the center
- This chest discomfort is usually associated with pain in the neck, throat, jaw, or left arm
While anyone can feel these core symptoms of a heart attack, women may be more likely to experience other, more subtle symptoms. This graph breaks down the difference in heart attack signs for males and females:
- female male heart attack symptoms
- Shayanne Girl / Insider
- If you think you or someone you know is having a heart attack, you should call 911 and see a doctor right away.
However, about 20% of heart attacks have no clear symptoms – this is called a silent heart attack – and it can go completely unnoticed.
Congenital heart disease
Congenital heart disease is when you are born with a heart defect. Although there are many different types, it is mainly the result of poor heart valve or blood vessel development throughout the uterus.
According to the CDC, approximately 1.4 million US adults and 1 million children are living with congenital heart disease. While people with congenital heart disease don’t always show symptoms, doctors look for signs such as a heart murmur or abnormal blood flow through the heart for a diagnosis.
Congestive or heart failure
cardiac arrest , is when heart function deteriorates over time and no longer pumps blood efficiently. It often occurs in people with coronary artery disease who have ignored treatment for years.
However, heart failure doesn’t mean your heart has stopped beating. According to the CDC, approximately 6.5 million US adults are living with the condition.
Symptoms of heart disease
Most of the time, heart disease develops without noticeable symptoms. That’s why it’s important to visit your doctor for routine checkups, as they would be able to determine if you might be at risk.
In fact, the signs of a heart attack are sometimes the only symptoms of heart disease. But some people may experience less oppressive chest pain at other times. This is called angina and often occurs after physical exertion, worsening over time as heart disease develops.
But it can be difficult to know if your chest pains are severe and symptomatic of heart disease. For example, indigestion or heartburn, as well as anxiety, can produce chest pain that can be mistaken for angina or heart attack.
To know if you have heart disease, it’s important to understand your risk factors. Overall, two of the main causes of heart disease are :
High blood pressure, or hypertension, occurs when blood pumps too hard, hardening the arteries and leading to decreased blood flow to the heart. About 70% of people who have their first heart attack will have hypertension. Find out more about the risks of hypertension here.
A doctor will be able to take blood pressure readings during a routine checkup. These numbers can help indicate the risk of developing heart disease:
High cholesterol can also restrict blood flow through a disease called atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of plaque in the arteries. Atherosclerosis is a leading cause of coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease.
The following factors can lead to high blood pressure or high cholesterol and greatly increase the risk of heart disease:
- Lack of exercise
It’s important to keep your heart beating, and if you don’t exercise regularly, a sedentary lifestyle can raise your blood pressure and cholesterol and increase your chances of heart disease.
- Unhealthy diet
Eating foods high in saturated and trans fats, as well as sodium, can raise blood pressure and cholesterol. Also, skipping meals like breakfast often can be bad for your heart.
Use of alcohol. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can negatively affect the heart, although moderate use can have some heart health benefits.
- To smoke
The use of cigarettes is a major predictor of heart disease. And while the jury is still out on what marijuana does to your heart, experts believe that smoking any substance can increase your risk.
- Chronic stress
Over time, stress can contribute to a heart attack. Sudden stress can also cause takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which looks like a heart attack, but the artery isn’t actually blocked.
- Lack of sleep
Constantly sleeping less than seven hours a night can increase your risk of heart disease.
Genetics. While hypertension is influenced by genetics, high cholesterol can often be completely genetic, known as familial hypercholesterolemia.
Other underlying health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes and kidney disease: They can also increase the risk of heart disease.
Even if you have many of these risk factors, it’s not too late to prevent heart disease. The best way to do this is to take steps to lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol. That’s how:
- Exercise regularly. Aim for 30-60 minutes of physical activity every day. A combination of stretching exercises, strength training, and aerobic (cardio) exercise throughout the week is recommended.
- Lose weight. Excess weight makes your heart work harder. In fact, reducing only 5% to 10% of body weight can lower cholesterol and blood pressure, helping to relieve the load on the heart.
- Eat healthier. Foods that can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol include green leafy vegetables, whole grains, and fish. Both the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet are recommended for heart health.
- Stop smoking. Research has found that giving up cigarettes can reduce heart disease risk by 39%.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for heart disease. But if you’ve been diagnosed, there are plenty of ways to treat your condition and manage a healthy life.
You will need to exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight, adopt eating plans and other lifestyle habits that keep blood pressure and cholesterol under control.
Many people will also need the help of medications or surgery to prevent more serious health complications or death.
These drugs are prescribed to treat several aspects of heart disease:
- Beta blockers or ACE inhibitors can help control high blood pressure.
- Statins can help lower cholesterol and triglycerides, which are another important measure of heart health.
- Blood thinners can help reduce the risk of blood clots and prevent complications from heart disease, such as a stroke. Also, aspirin can help treat a heart attack because it is a blood thinner.
In advanced cases of heart disease, surgery may be needed to repair blocked arteries or an irregular heartbeat. Here are the most common and effective surgical procedures for heart disease:
- Stent. This tube is placed to support the opening of an artery during angioplasty, a minor surgery that is often used to restore blood flow after a heart attack. Follow our guides to prepare for stent surgery and recover from the procedure.
- Cardiac stimulator. This small device is implanted in the chest and sends electrical signals to the heart to correct any irregularities. You may need it if you have an arrhythmia, such as bradycardia or slow heart rate.
- Bypass surgery. Coronary artery bypass grafting, or bypass surgery, is used to redirect blood flow around a blocked artery. It is one of the most common operations in the United States and is used to treat coronary heart disease. Follow our guides to prepare for bypass surgery and recover from the procedure.
Heart disease is the biggest killer in the United States, but it doesn’t have to be. To reduce the risk of serious health complications, it is important to take heart health seriously.
This means regularly checking your blood pressure and cholesterol levels with your doctor and following guidelines for a heart-healthy lifestyle. Medical experts know how to fight heart disease, and by following these tips, you can too.