The Heart of the Matter: Understanding Heart Disease
February is American Heart Month. Despite it being the leading cause of death in the United States, heart disease is often misunderstood. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four Americans dies from heart disease. However, according to the American Heart Association, 80% of heart disease incidents could be avoided with the help of lifestyle changes and education. Understanding different types of heart disease and their symptoms can help save lives.
Coronary Artery Disease
Regarded by the CDC as the most common type of heart disease, coronary artery disease (CAD) is caused by the buildup of plaque on artery walls, narrowing the passage for blood flow. Its most common symptom is chest pain, and a heart attack is often the first indication that you have CAD.
Risk factors include high cholesterol and high blood pressure. If you suspect you are at risk for CAD, there are different ways to test for it, from an EKG to a cardiac CT scan. Prevention and recovery include healthy eating, exercise and medication.
Heart attacks occur when a section of heart muscle does not get proper oxygen flow. The longer the muscle remains without oxygen, the more damage is caused, so early intervention is critical.
Symptoms of an impending heart attack commonly include chest pain or discomfort, as well as pain in other areas like the arms, neck, shoulders or abdomen. Nausea, light-headedness or fatigue are also common. Treatment after a heart attack can include both medications and surgery.
Although heart attacks can be deadly, more than 90% of people who have a heart attack survive, according to Harvard Medical School.
Congestive Heart Failure
Unlike a heart attack, heart failure takes place more slowly, as the heart muscle weakens and does not pump blood throughout the body like it should. Symptoms of heart failure can include shortness of breath, fatigue and swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, abdomen or neck. Because heart failure can worsen with time, it is important to discuss treatment options—typically medication—with a doctor to manage the disease.
Other Heart Conditions
Heart Valve Disease occurs when your heart valves do not operate properly, either not opening to allow proper blood flow to the heart or not sealing shut fully, causing leakage. There are different types of valve diseases, and causes can range from birth defects to infection.
Noticeable symptoms of heart valve diseases include tightness of the chest, shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling of ankles, feet and abdomen or light-headedness. Serious symptoms should be discussed with a physician, as surgery to repair or replace the heart valve might be necessary.
Cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle that creates challenges for your heart to get blood pumped throughout the body. Cardiomyopathy can cause the heart muscles to become thick, rigid or swollen, thus weakening heart function. The disease can be either acquired or inherited. Related to other heart conditions, cardiomyopathy can be the result of heart attacks, high blood pressure, valve problems and more.
Arrhythmias usually feel like a racing heart, an irregular fluttering or a skipped beat. Some arrhythmias are harmless, although you should consult with your doctor if you notice them happening frequently for an extended period of time or the presence of other symptoms.
Congenital Heart Defects are heart defects that are present at birth. The term can cover any number of infant heart problems, such as a leaky valve, hole in the heart structure or irregular rhythm.
Recognizing symptoms can drastically reduce the damage caused by heart disease. If you recognize yourself on this list, consult your doctor on how best to take care of your health and live a long life, free of heart disease.
Written by: Sarah Harder