February 9, 2021

Understanding Heart Disease

February is Heart Disease Awareness Month.

During Heart Disease Awareness month, we offer a short education on heart disease, common symptoms, risk factors, prevention, and treatment options.


What is heart disease?

The walls of the coronary arteries are normally smooth and elastic. Heart disease, also called coronary artery disease, occurs when cholesterol and fatty deposits (called plaque) build up on the inner walls of the arteries. This narrows the coronary arteries and makes is more difficult for blood to flow freely.

When the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart is reduced, you can experience chest pain or discomfort (angina). If the plaque ruptures, blood cells stick to the site of the injury and form blood clots. If a clot becomes large enough, it can block a coronary artery and cause a heart attack.


Symptoms of Heart Disease

Over time, heart disease can weaken the heart muscle and lead to congestive heart failure. With congestive heart failure, your heart can’t pump enough blood to meet your body’s needs. This may also lead to problems with the rate or rhythm of your heart (arrythmias).

Symptoms of heart disease range from no symptoms at all (silent heart disease), to chest pain or discomfort, to the acute heart attack symptoms, listed below.

  • Chest pain, shortness of breath and fatigue.
  • Pressure in the chest, with or without pain in one or both arms, jaw, back, stomach or neck.
  • Nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, feeling faint, or cold sweats.


Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Be aware of the risk factors of heart disease and reduce your risk when possible. Risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol, including high LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) and low HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol)
  • High blood pressure, at or above 140/90 over time, or 130/80 if you have diabetes or chronic kidney disease
  • Medical history of insulin resistance or diabetes
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Age over 45 for men, and post-menopausal for women
  • Obesity
  • Stress, such as an emotionally upsetting event, especially involving anger
  • Heavy alcohol drinking


Medications for heart disease

If you have heart disease, your doctor may prescribe medications for related conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure. Anti-platelet drugs such as aspirin or Plavix, beta blockers, or nitroglycerin may be recommended, especially if you have narrowing of the arteries or episodes of chest pain. There are also surgical options for treating heart disease.


Improving heart health

Prevention of heart events is important. You can improve your heart health by eating a healthy diet, doing regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking. Living a healthy lifestyle that includes good nutrition and managing stress can play a big role in avoiding heart disease.

If you have concerns about your heart health or would like to take steps to help prevent heart disease, talk to your doctor. Be sure to take all your prescribed medications and keep your appointments with your doctors and specialists.