Health Education

Heart Disease: A Primer

Cropped SingleCare logo By | February 19, 2016

We all know that keeping up with heart health is important, but what exactly does that entail? We’re taking a closer look at heart disease and how to prevent it.

Coronary heart disease (more commonly known as heart disease) is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the CDC — about 1 in 4 deaths (610,000 people each year) can be attributed to the condition. Since it has such a widespread effect on public health, it’s important to understand exactly what heart disease is — and what can you do to limit your risk. Here’s the need to know facts about heart disease and some heart-healthy tips to keep your ticker in tip top shape.

What Is It?

Heart disease refers to a collection of conditions that affect the heart, the primary form being coronary artery disease (CAD), as the CDC explains. This is the most common type of heart disease, and leads to heart attacks as a result of a plaque buildup in the arterial walls. The plaque itself is made up of cholesterol deposits that slowly cause the pathway in the arteries to narrow, a process known as atherosclerosis.

The narrowing of the arteries limits the supply of blood to the heart, simultaneously weakening the heart while making it difficult for blood to get to the rest of the body. A heart with insufficient blood can cause chest pain or discomfort, known as angina, and this is the most common symptom of CAD. Eventually, the heart will become so weak it can no longer pump blood properly — heart failure. A heart attack occurs when an artery is so impeded that oxygen-rich blood cells and nutrients can’t get to the heart.

CAD itself is responsible for over 370,000 deaths annually, while about 735,000 people have a heart attack. The vast majority of these, about 525,000 people, are first-time heart attack victims. Other diseases that affect the heart and blood vessels include stroke, high blood pressure, and rheumatic heart disease.

Knowing the Dangers

Knowing what puts you at risk for heart disease is a great first step for prevention. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking are three key factors — 47% of all Americans report having at least one of these circumstances in their life. Being overweight or obese in addition to poor diet, limited exercise, diabetes, and excessive alcohol use also greatly increase the possibility of contracting heart disease.

While the symptoms can vary depending on the type of heart disease, chest pain is typically the first sign of trouble. In more extreme cases, heart attacks are the first indication of heart disease. Heart attacks can manifest in a number of ways, according to the NIH, including continual chest pain or discomfort, pain in the jaw, neck, or back, a cold sweat with weakness, light-headedness and nausea, shortness of breath, and pain in the arms or shoulder. Be sure to dial 9-1-1 immediately if you think you or someone you know is experiencing a heart attack.

Limiting the Risk

If you think you may have heart disease, your doctor may perform several tests for an accurate diagnosis, ranging from chest X-rays to EKGs. There are many simple steps — predominantly lifestyle changes — to lower your risk of diagnosis or just to keep your heart the healthiest it can be, as recommended by Ma. Changing your diet is one of the most important, whether that means decreasing your portion sizes or eating more fruits and veggies. Choose whole grains over processed and refined products, and limit your intake of unhealthy fats like those found in fatty cuts of meat. For healthier proteins alternatives, choose plant-based ones like legumes and nuts.

Exercise is equally as important to heart health as your diet, so start slow if you’ve been living a sedentary lifestyle. You may need to begin with short walks or hikes as your main form of exercise, then you can slowly build on your progress towards more challenging workouts.

If you’re concerned about your heart health, be sure to keep up regular checkups with your doctor, too. That can be tough, especially if you are uninsured or underinsured — but there are dependable methods to find the best, most convenient care available. SingleCare offers its members a massive online database of practices and practitioners, and members pay only for the treatments they need, no matter their level of insurance coverage. Every healthy decision is cause to celebrate, no matter how small, so take the first step and find the right doctor for you and your heart.