Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, taking the life of someone every 36 seconds. Primarily due to the fact that we do a poor job of preventing coronary artery disease (CAD), which is the leading risk factor for heart disease. Treating heart disease after the damage has already been done really just puts a band-aid on this fatal disease. The damage often begins years, even decades, before it becomes life-threatening. Therefore, we should really be reducing our risk for CAD starting at a much younger age and since heart disease in younger adults is steadily on the rise, adopting these lifestyle changes now can drastically reduce your risk for heart disease in the future.
Surprisingly, most people don’t even know what heart disease really is. More than likely, the majority of adults don’t really know what a heart attack is or what really causes it. Being as heart disease is the number one killer, we should probably get the word out that a heart attack isn’t just from a sudden “clogged artery” and that damage is being done from genetics and repeated exposure to irritants from lifestyle choices that we made years before. I’ll explain this further down the page so we can explore what heart disease really is, all the risk factors, and what you can do to start improving your heart health today.
What Really is Heart Disease?
Your heart is a muscle that never gets to rest. It requires a constant supply of oxygenated blood to continue working, as well as an uninterrupted electrical current to keep it pacing. Four valves and four chambers work together to pump blood to the lungs for oxygen and throughout your entire body to supply every cell with energy and nutrients, otherwise, these cells will die. That’s what happens when the heart doesn’t receive its own supply of rich blood. When a coronary artery is blocked it leads to damage to the tissues it’s supplying, resulting in an injury to cardiac muscle.
Think of these coronary arteries like a map around the heart and all the roads allow traffic to flow freely all around. When one road closes due to a traffic jam, it can put stress and strain on the entire freeway. Any damage to the coronary arteries likely causes damage to the heart, as it would compromise blood flow to cardiac muscle. A narrowed artery would limit oxygen supply, resulting in a slower onset of symptoms (angina), or none at all. Compared to a complete block, which results in a sudden heart attack.
Types of Heart Attacks
There are different types of heart attacks but we’re most familiar with the “clogged artery” ones. Coronary arteries become narrowed by plaques, which are essentially pockets of cholesterol and other cells, like white blood cells (WBC) that collect inside the vessel walls when they are damaged. These cells eventually die and signal the immune system for help. More WBC’s rush in and the cycle continues until the plaque eventually bursts, spilling out all the cholesterol and dead cells into the bloodstream. This sets off a cascade of inflammatory events, causing a blood clot to form quickly, compromising blood flow. If a complete occlusion occurs, this is called a myocardial infarction (MI), or heart attack. Time is crucial to get to the ER for treatment to restore blood flow before cardiac tissue is permanently lost.
Why Cholesterol Matters: Atherosclerosis
So what’s this plaque and how does it build up inside our arteries? CAD is really the process of arteries becoming hard and stiff from the buildup of plaque in coronary vessels (atherosclerosis). CAD is one of the main precursors to heart disease. Plaque can start building up at any age, primarily due to genetics and lifestyle factors. When the protective barrier of the artery becomes damaged plaque starts to pile up, which is explained below:
- 1st– An irritant to the blood vessel like nicotine, chronic high blood pressure/stress, high blood sugar, or a diet high in processed foods/sugars that disrupts the protective lining
- 2nd– Cholesterol and other cells build up along the vessel wall, narrowing the flow of circulation. Occurs faster if a poor diet is paired with a sedentary lifestyle
- 3rd– Time. As we all age, our vessels become stiffer and pressure rises, causing plaques to rupture easier
The more risk factors you have, the higher the chance for heart disease. Therefore, it’s important to know your risks, but more important to know how to reduce them.
Risk Factors for Heart Disease
- High Cholesterol– High LDL, (and High Triglycerides), Low HDL
- High Blood Pressure– Leads to more stress on the heart and blood vessels. Damages lining of vessels over time. Can be from genetics, poor diet, nicotine and/or heavy alcohol consumption & more
- Nicotine Use– Nicotine destroys protective vessel lining allowing cholesterol in, constricts blood vessels, increases pressure and heart rate, and hardens arteries. Other stimulants like cocaine and energy drinks speed up the heart rate. Steroid use also increases risk
- Sedentary Lifestyle– Associated with higher cholesterol levels and less circulation, allows more plaque to build-up
- Being Overweight– Associated with higher risk for heart disease as it’s usually associated with higher cholesterol levels and more fatty build-up on vessel walls. Often linked to a diet that increases inflammation. Diet high in processed foods and sugars, as well as saturated and trans fats, increase risk for plaque formation
- Diabetes– High glucose in the blood damages the vessel lining and nerves that control heart rate. Increased risk of blood clots
- High Stress– Inflammation from chronic stress as cortisol levels increase blood glucose, cholesterol, and blood pressure.
- Age– Older age increases the risk as vessels harden, plaque builds up over time, and the heart muscle becomes weaker
- Sex/Gender– Men are generally at higher risk, especially after age 45. Women are at increased risk after age 55
- Genetics/Family History– Increased risk if a family member has heart disease
- Race/Ethnicity– African Americans and South Asians/Pacific Islanders are at higher risk for heart disease, followed by persons of Hispanic descent and Caucasians
Heart disease is known as the silent killer because often there are no symptoms!
- Men: typically have more classic symptoms of chest pain/pressure that may radiate to arm/back/neck, sweating/chills or trouble adjusting to temperature changes, shortness of breath, anxiety, nausea or GI upset
- Women: tend to have more vague symptoms like fatigue, indigestion, nausea, jaw/neck pain, may or may not have any chest pain
How to Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease
- Diet: The goal is to eat a well-balanced diet to maintain a healthy weight and balance hormone levels. Reduce processed foods and sugary drinks, as well as limit saturated and trans fats. Manage alcohol consumption.
- Exercise: Routine exercise increases good cholesterol levels (HDL) that protect your heart, reduces bad cholesterol (LDL and VLDL), lowers blood pressure, and strengthens cardiovascular function as exercise makes all muscles stronger, including the heart muscle. According to the American Heart Association, it’s recommended to engage in moderate-intensity exercise 30 minutes a day/5 days a week. In reality, any activity that increases heart rate that you can build endurance over time is better than nothing. Start slow and add on as you go.
- Quit Smoking: Nicotine destroys the protective barrier inside blood vessels to prevent cholesterol from sticking to the walls. Probably one of the best decisions you can make for your health is to cut out nicotine.
- Heart-Healthy Fats: Omega fats like avocado, nuts and certain fish are very healthy for your heart as they protect the lining of vessels. You actually want high HDL cholesterol levels as these to protect your vessels by removing plaque build-up and bringing other cholesterol back to the liver for excretion.
- Stress Management: Chronic high stress leads to higher cortisol levels and can take a toll on heart health. Use meditation, nature hikes, deep breathing, yoga, or anything that helps you stay positive and manage stress in a healthy way.
- Sleep Hygiene: Use sleep relaxation techniques to improve sleep as chronic insomnia can lead to increased blood pressure and strain on the heart, Learn more tips by reading this: Are you Getting Enough Sleep Blog.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health conditions without consulting your healthcare provider. Information used is based on experience and opinion, not 100% evidence. Always consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website. Some links in this article may contain affiliate links.