Cardiovascular disease, often used interchangeably with heart disease, is the most prevalent medical condition in industrialized countries. Not only is cardiovascular disease the number one leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women (yes, even more so than cancer!), it is also the cause of every one in three deaths resulting from medical conditions. Cardiovascular disease encompasses all problems dealing with the cardiovascular system, including all structures of the heart, and the blood vessels (including arteries and veins). Read on to learn about a few of the most common types of cardiovascular disease and a few general prevention tips that can protect you from this number one killer.
Atherosclerosis is characterized by the hardening of the blood vessels due to fatty plaque buildup along the vessel walls. When an individual consumes a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet, the body can have difficulties processing the fat. Hence, the excess fat can accumulate on the blood vessel walls and form plaques that harden the vessels overtime. Hardened blood vessels are no longer elastic, and cannot efficiently deliver blood to parts of the body. Atherosclerosis is also the common underlying culprit that leads up to other heart diseases, such as coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral vascular disease and heart attacks.
Heart Attacks (Myocardial Infarction)
Heart attacks can occur in serious cases of atherosclerosis, as the same plaques that cause the hardening of blood vessels can break off, travel to the heart, and completely block any blood flow to the heart. Since blood carries nutrients and oxygen essential for the heart to work, heart tissue will start dying from lack of oxygen, causing a heart attack. Heart attacks are often fatal if not treated immediately. Signs and symptoms can include:
- Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, shoulder, or back.
- Feeling weak, light-headed, or faint.
- Chest pain or discomfort (can be mistaken for acid reflux)
- Shortness of breath.
Unfortunately, heart tissues that die during the heart attack cannot be recovered. Hence, someone who experiences such an episode will have a less efficient heart, known as coronary heart disease (CHD), which sets the platform for future heart attacks and possible heart failure.
Chronic Heart Failure (CHF)
Chronic heart failure is characterized by a weak and inadequate heart that can no longer pump enough blood to supply to other organs of the body. As the name suggests, this is a chronic condition that can take a serious toll on the body; about half of the people with heart failure die within five years of diagnosis. CHF progression stems from other cardiovascular diseases, including heart attack, coronary heart disease, and high blood pressure. Symptoms of CHF include and are not limited to:
- Shortness of breath with little exertions (such as performing daily activities)
- Troubled breathing when lying flat
- Swelling of the legs, ankles, lower back
- Weight gain resulting from fluid accumulation
- General fatigue and weakness
Hence, it is very important to manage any existing heart diseases to prevent it to progress to CHF.
High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)
Hypertension is extremely common, as well as one of the culprits, along with atherosclerosis, of other serious cardiovascular diseases. High blood pressure occurs when your heart is working excessively hard to pump blood, which can result in damage of the blood vessels, encourage plaque buildup on vessel walls, and overstressing the heart by increasing its workload. While many times the cause of high blood pressure is either unknown or hereditary, there are medications and lifestyle modifications (see: 10 Tips For Lowering Blood Pressure Naturally) that can help with management. Also, be sure to follow your doctor’s recommendations on hypertension management.
Peripheral Vascular Disease
This condition is also often known as peripheral artery disease. As its name suggests, peripheral vascular disease affects the blood vessels of the extremities, which are further away from the heart. This condition is characterized by a drastic decrease of blood flow, or complete blockage, in the legs due to plaque buildup on the vessel walls. Hypertension and atherosclerosis contributes to peripheral vascular disease, which in turn increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and chronic heart disease. Signs and symptoms include pain or numbness in the legs, and if left untreated, can lead to gangrene or amputation.
For those who do not have hereditary heart problems, there are still preventative ways that can help keep the cardiovascular system healthy. Utilizing the DASH diet, which emphasize eating a low-salt diet with plenty of whole grains, fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and low-fat proteins will definitely help. Be sure to also get annual physical exams with your doctor to check your blood cholesterol level. Incorporating daily exercise, quitting cigarette smoking, as well as good management of blood pressure, can also ward off heart problems down the road. Now that you have this knowledge, be sure to spread the word!