Heart disease affects millions of people all over the world. In fact, it is the leading cause of death and morbidity in most countries. According to the World Health Organization, by 2030 more than 23 million people will die each year due to heart disease. But exactly is heart disease? How can you tell if you have it? How do you prevent it?
What is heart disease?
Heart disease formally goes by the initials CVD – which stands for Cardiovascular Disease. It is characterized by dysfunction or malformation that affects the heart and the blood vessels in the body. CVDs can be congenital or acquired; the latter is more common, caused by unhealthy lifestyles that increase the risk being developing a heart problem. But CVD doesn’t refer to one disease only. It refers to all diseases that affect the heart and blood vessels – from atherosclerosis to ventricular septal defect (VSD).
While all heart problems are dangerous, at the top of the list is a condition called CAD – short for Coronary Artery Disease. It’s a heart condition that affects the arteries that supply the heart with oxygenated blood (called coronary arteries). These arteries, being very small, are prone to get blocked with deposits of fat and inflammatory cells, collectively called plaque.
How does heart disease affect the population?
According to the Centers for Disease Control:
- 600,000 people in the US die each year because of heart disease.
- Out of 600,000 deaths, 380,000 are specifically caused by Coronary Artery Disease.
- Heart attacks hit over 720,000 Americans each year.
- The cost of managing heart disease rounds up to almost 109 billion dollars annually – that includes everything from medications to productivity loss.
How do the arteries get blocked with plaque?
There are three major risk factors associated with the development of heart disease – (1) unhealthy diet, (2) lack of exercise, and (3) smoking. An unhealthy diet can mean a lot of things, but in terms of heart disease, it is a diet high in fat and sodium. These two things contribute to the deposition of fat in the blood vessels and increase in blood pressure. Too much fat in the diet causes the excess to be deposited in the blood vessels. High sodium directly contributes to water retention in the blood, which raises blood pressure.
The second factor is a sedentary lifestyle with minimal to absolute lack of exercise. The term sedentary refers to very minimal activity; usually people with desk jobs have this kind of lifestyle. Without proper exercise, energy expenditure is quite low, which can cause fat build up in the body and eventually in the blood vessels.
The third factor, smoking, has been featured in a lot of studies that reveal how nicotine directly damages the blood vessels. Similarly, high cholesterol, specifically low density lipoprotein (LDL), also damages the blood vessel walls. Damaged vessels get flooded with inflammatory cells, which also become deposits along with fat, increasing the size of the plaque or blockage. The bigger the plaque grows, the more it obstructs the flow of blood through that vessel.
These three major factors are called modifiable risk factors, because they involve the personal choices in a person’s lifestyle. The other kind of risk factors is non-modifiable – because they are your personal history of disease, family history of disease, and sex. A person whose parents or first to second degree relatives have been diagnosed with heart problems have a higher risk than those without that risk factor.
What happens if a vessel gets obstructed?
When a blood vessel gets blocked with plaque, it slows or completely halts the flow of blood through the vessel. This is why CAD is very dangerous – because if the blockage affects the coronary arteries, it slows the supply of blood to the heart. Without oxygen reaching cardiac tissue, it starts to die and can lead to a heart attack.
Remember – tissue death is irreversible. In a myocardial infarction, the medical term for a heart attack, a part of the heart is damaged depending on the affected blood vessel. If blood flow is not returned within the next few hours, the cardiac tissue starts to die. This process cannot be reversed; only pain medication is used to manage the symptoms.
Heart problems typically manifest as pain in the chest, nape, and shoulder, high blood pressure, and fatigue – especially after stressful activities. Sometimes heart problems don’t have any symptoms except for an acute attack on the heart or blood pressure.
How do you prevent heart disease?
Like with every other disease, targeting the risk factors for heart disease are your best chances in avoiding it. Modifiable risk factors are lifestyle-based, meaning adjustments have to be done on diet, activity, and exercise.
- Keep your fat intake to a minimum – avoid using/eating food fried in oil or butter.
- Carbohydrate intake should just meet your daily needs to avoid its conversion to fatty deposits.
- Keep sugar intake to a minimum as well. High blood glucose level in Diabetes has also been linked to the development of heart disease. Avoid sugary foods such as sweets and pastries.
- The minimum requirement for exercise is at least 20 minutes of moderate activity. Moderate activities include speed walking, jogging, and cycling. Always find time to exercise at least two to three times a week.
- If your work involves a lot of sitting at a desk, remember to stand up, stretch, and walk around at least every hour.
- Don’t smoke! With nicotine damaging blood vessels, smoking is a major risk factor for the development of heart disease. Stop smoking completely – no ifs and buts.
The reach of heart disease is far. Almost everyone knows or is related to someone who has a heart problem, even if the condition is just hypertension. While billions of dollars are being spend on this condition, preventing it is as easy as making the right lifestyle choices. WHO and other cardiac organizations emphasize the importance of prevention – adjust your lifestyle today and reap the benefits of a healthy heart in the long run!