According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, and for most racial and ethnic groups in America. About 20% of all deaths in the U.S. in 2020 were caused by heart disease – that’s someone every 34 seconds.
Despite its prevalence, many people don’t really know what heart disease is. It’s in everyone’s best interest to find out, especially because understanding the causes of heart disease can go a long way to helping you prevent it.
What is Heart Disease?
The term heart disease is a catch-all term for several different conditions that impair heart function, including:
- Coronary Artery Disease. The coronary arteries are the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle. As in other arteries, plaque can start to form under the lining of the coronary arteries at a young age. As people age, particularly if they have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, family history of coronary artery disease, or tobacco use, plaque will continue to accumulate. This can lead to angina (chest pain with exertion) and heart attacks. Coronary artery disease is also known as atherosclerosis.
- Cardiomyopathy. Cardiomyopathy (dysfunction of the heart muscle) will often lead to symptoms of heart failure, which include shortness of breath, leg swelling, and fatigue. Heart failure occurs when the pumping function of the heart is impaired. This can occur as a result of heart attacks, high blood pressure, viral infections, genetic defects, as well as side effects to some cancer therapies.
- Heart Valve Dysfunction. Heart disease can also refer to dysfunction in the heart valves. The valves of the keep blood flowing in one direction. The heart valves can develop stenosis or regurgitation. Stenosis is narrowing of the valve and regurgitation is when the valve leaflets do not come together properly and allow blood to flow backward. When the heart has to work harder to keep blood flowing in the right direction, this can lead to heart failure, heart attack, or death.
- Arrhythmias. The heart has an electrical conduction system that keeps it pumping in a coordinated fashion. An abnormal heart rhythm is called an arrhythmia. There are fast arrhythmias called “tachycardia” and slow arrhythmias called “bradycardia”. These various arrhythmias may cause heart palpitations, dizziness, chest pain, fatigue, and more. They can be treated with medications, ablations and pacemakers.
- Birth Defects. Finally, congenital heart disease refers to structural defects in the heart that are present at the time of birth. Many congenital heart defects must be dealt with at an early age. However, some, such as a bicuspid aortic valve, do not cause problems until later in life.
It is not uncommon for heart disease patients to have more than one of these conditions.
Causes of Heart Disease
Heart disease can occur at any age. While it is more common in men and women over 50 years old, lifestyle factors such as obesity and high blood pressure are putting younger people at higher risk for developing it earlier in life.
The leading risk factors for heart disease include:
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Unhealthy cholesterol levels, particularly high LDL cholesterol
Nearly half of all adults in America have at least one of these primary risk factors.
Additional risk factors include:
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Alcohol consumption
- Lack of sleep
- Age and
- Family history
“High blood pressure and narrowing of the coronary arteries are probably the most common causes of heart disfunction that we see,” said Tom Richardson, Cardiologist at Western Washington Medical Group. Heart disease is largely preventable through healthy lifestyle choices. With a plant-based diet, regular exercise, and stress management, nonsmokers can maintain heart health.
Heart Disease Symptoms
Heart disease can progress undetected for many years. Symptoms of heart problems include chest discomfort (sometimes neck, jaw, shoulder, arm discomfort), shortness of breath with exertion, palpitations (sensation of abnormal heart beat), or passing out.
But in many cases, heart attack or heart failure are the first signs that something is wrong. Blood tests and heart health tests can help detect heart disease before it becomes serious. Anyone who is at elevated risk should talk to their primary care provider about whether these tests are warranted.
Primary care providers can also help identify strategies and specific lifestyle changes that will help reduce the risk of developing heart disease.
Treatment for Heart Disease
Once a patient develops heart disease, their condition can be treated with medications such as blood thinners, statins, or blood pressure medications.
Severe cases of heart disease may require surgery. Sometimes procedures such as coronary angioplasty and stent, bypass surgery, ablation of an arrhythmia, pacemaker, or valve replacement are needed.
Regardless of surgery or medication, all heart disease patients must make lifestyle changes to improve heart health– including smoking cessation, minimal alcohol consumption, adopting a plant-based diet, getting regular exercise, and managing stress. These lifestyle changes are the same actions that a person can take to prevent heart disease.
For heart disease patients, making these lifestyle changes may require more effort than simply taking a pill, but the good news is that you can control your heart disease to maintain a positive quality of life.
When to Seek Help from a Medical Provider
If you have one or more of the risk factors associated with heart disease and are concerned, visit your WWMG Primary Care provider. They can help advise on lifestyle modifications, medication, or refer you to a specialist such as a Cardiologist.
If you’ve already been diagnosed with heart disease, or are at high risk, contact WWMG Cardiology for a thorough assessment. Our experienced and caring Cardiology team will work with you to create an individualized treatment plan to help you stay healthy for many years to come.