Every moment of the day, your heart is pumping blood throughout your body. In silent moments, you can hear the thump-thump-thump of its demanding work. Do you take your heart for granted? Most of us will have heart trouble at some point in our lives. Heart disease is the number one killer of women and men in the United States. But you can take steps now to lower your risk.
“About 1 out of 3 people in America will die of heart disease,” says NIH heart disease expert Dr. David C. Goff, Jr. “And about 6 out of every 10 of us will have a major heart disease event before we die.”
Heart disease develops when the blood vessels supplying the heart become clogged with fatty deposits, or plaque. After the blood vessels narrow, blood flow to the heart is reduced. That means oxygen and nutrients can’t get to the heart as easily.
Eventually, an area of plaque can break open. This may cause a blood clot to form on the plaque’s surface. A blood clot can block blood flowing to the heart. That can cause a heart attack.
A heart attack happens when a vessel supplying the heart is blocked and the heart can’t get enough oxygen, which leads to death of heart muscle.
The three major risk factors for heart disease have been known since the 1960s: smoking, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol levels. These were identified in NIH’s Framingham Heart Study, a long-term study of people in Framingham, Massachusetts.
“If we could eliminate cigarette smoking, elevated blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol levels, we could eradicate about 9 out of 10 heart attacks in our country,” says Dr. Daniel Levy, a heart specialist at NIH who oversees the Framingham Heart Study currently.
The study has also uncovered other risk factors, including diabetes, obesity, and physical inactivity. Levy’s research team is now hunting for genes that may be risk factors for heart disease. By understanding the factors that play a role in heart disease, scientists hope to find new ways to prevent and treat it.
Early heart disease may not cause any symptoms. That’s why regular checkups with your doctor are so important.
“The sad truth is that the vast majority of us has heart disease and we don’t know it,” Goff says.
Blood pressure and cholesterol levels can provide early signs. “People should see their doctor, find out their cholesterol and blood pressure numbers, and if needed, take medication,” advises Goff.
There are many other tests to detect heart disease. An electro-cardiogram, also called an EKG or ECG, measures electrical activity in your heart. It can show how well your heart is working and pick up signs of a previous heart attack.
Another test called an echocardiogram uses sound waves to detect problems. It shows the size, shape, and structures of your heart. It can also measure blood flow through your heart.
Although early heart disease might not cause symptoms, advanced heart disease may cause chest pressure, shortness of breath, or fatigue. Some people may feel lightheaded, dizzy, or confused. Tell your doctor if you’re experiencing any symptoms.
Make Healthy Choices
Talk with your doctor about your risk of heart disease and what you can do to keep your heart healthy.
“The most important things for everyone to do to keep their heart healthy—to keep their entire body healthy—is to eat a healthy diet, get plenty of physical activity, maintain a lean body weight, and avoid smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke,” Goff says.
Following a heart-healthy eating plan is important for everyone. “When someone puts food on their plate, about half the plate should be fruits and vegetables. About a quarter of the plate should be whole grain. And about a quarter should be lean protein, like lean meat or seafood,” says Goff.
If you have high blood pressure, you may want to follow the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. This diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole-grain foods, and low-fat dairy products. To learn more about the diet, see www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/dash.
Goff also advises, “Avoid foods that have a lot of salt in them. Salt is a major contributor to high blood pressure and risk of heart disease.”
Diabetes increases your chances of high blood pressure and high cholesterol. You’re also more likely to develop heart disease and have a heart attack.
“Having diabetes is almost like already having heart disease,” says Dr. Larissa Avilés-Santa, a diabetes and heart health expert at NIH. She oversees a large NIH study of heart disease risk factors among more than 16,000 Hispanic/Latino adults.
Avilés-Santa says that sometimes people think that they will develop diabetes and heart disease no matter what they do. But that’s not true. Even if you have a family history of these diseases, you can be the messenger of good health for your family, she says. You can help your family by inspiring healthy habits.
The best way to prevent diabetes is through diet and physical activity. “The evidence is outstanding that very modest changes in lifestyle could reduce the risk of developing diabetes much greater than medication,” Avilés-Santa says.
For some people, having a heart attack is the first sign of heart disease. Pain or discomfort in your chest or upper body, a cold sweat, or shortness of breath are all signs of a heart attack.
If you feel any of these signs, get medical help right away. Acting fast can save your life and prevent permanent damage.
Heart disease and heart attacks are major risk factors for cardiac arrest, which is when the heart suddenly stops beating. Blood stops flowing to the brain and other parts of the body. If not treated within minutes, cardiac arrest can lead to death.
Heart disease and heart attacks can also make it harder for your heart’s electrical system to work. As a result, an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, can occur. Your heart may beat too fast, too slow, or with an uneven rhythm. A dangerous arrhythmia can lead to cardiac arrest.
Regular checkups help ensure that a doctor will check your heart for problems. Heart disease and arrhythmias can be treated to lower the risk of cardiac arrest.
Be good to your heart. Don’t take it for granted. Get tested for heart disease, and follow your doctor’s suggestions. See the sidebar for questions you may want to ask your doctor.