Disclaimer: This information isn’t a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should never rely upon this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.
Out of all of the bits and pieces of the human body, the heart is the organ that’s captured the human imagination. Throughout history, it has been the center of emotion, the spirit, and the soul. In modern-day medicine, the heart is just as important. Think of the heart as the human engine. Its chambers pump the blood that delivers the oxygen and nutrients to every corner and crevice of our bodies and returns all of the waste and carbon dioxide, fueling our ability to move forward with daily life.
For something that we know is so important to us, we treat the heart pretty poorly. Many of us rarely exercise and eat foods filled with fat and cholesterol that can clog our blood vessels. We might also smoke or drink much more than we know we should. And we struggle with maintaining our blood sugar, blood pressure, and weight, making it more difficult for our heart to keep doing its job.
Let’s walk through some terminology that you’ll encounter as you learn about the heart. First, coronary artery disease (CAD)—it’s a disease of the arteries that feed the heart itself. This is what people classically think of when they hear ‘heart disease’ and is also known as ischemic heart disease or coronary heart disease. As the coronary arteries become diseased, they narrow, choking the heart of blood flow and the oxygen and nutrients it needs. This can cause chest pain, and if it becomes bad enough, a heart attack. Well then, what’s cardiovascular disease (CVD)? Cardiovascular disease is a collection of diseases that affect the heart (cardio-) and circulatory system (vascular). This includes the aforementioned coronary artery disease, as well as strokes, heart failure, abnormal heart rhythms, clotting disorders like pulmonary embolism, heart valve disorders, and peripheral artery disease. And lastly, what’s heart failure? Heart failure, also known as congestive heart failure (CHF), occurs when your heart muscle weakens and isn’t able to adequately pump blood to supply the rest of the body. This weakness usually comes from damage via medications, infections, heart attacks, high blood pressure, or alcohol abuse. People with heart failure are often affected by shortness of breath, fatigue, and fluid buildup in their legs.
The statistics on cardiovascular disease are staggering. The American Heart Association (AHA) in 2018 reported that 92 million people in the United States were affected by CVD, costing us almost $330 billion per year. It’s not only costly, but it’s also deadly—over 800,000 people die every year from CVD. The CDC reports that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.
The good news is that, according to the AHA, 80% of cardiovascular disease (CVD) is preventable. So how do we prevent heart disease? First, concentrate on living a heart-healthy lifestyle. This means eating a healthy diet. A heart-healthy diet means eating food that’s high in fiber (like whole grains) and low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, all of which contribute to high cholesterol levels, a major risk factor for CVD. This also means avoiding salt, which can elevate blood pressure and sugar, which can lead to diabetes. Outside of a healthy diet, we also have to think about maintaining a healthy weight. To make this a priority, we have to control the number of calories we eat. We also need to exercise, which can help with almost every risk factor for cardiovascular disease, including obesity. For adults, the surgeon general recommends 30 minutes of physical activity a day. And let’s not forget about smoking and excessive drinking, both of which are significant risk factors for developing CVD.
After we tackle our lifestyle, we’ll need to talk to our healthcare providers about other medical conditions that can harm our hearts. This includes high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Our providers can screen us for these conditions and make sure we’re on the right medications to treat them. This way, we can make sure we’re doing all the right things for heart health.
We’ll be diving deeper into the steps we can take to optimize our cardiovascular health. Come with us on this journey to learn about how we can show our hearts a little love.