By Karla Robinson, MD
Even while claiming an estimated 500,000 lives each year in this country, few recognize that the leading cause of death in our community is heart disease. Heart disease is often times known as a “silent killer” because it has been known to strike with little warning. While there are some risk factors to developing heart disease that are beyond our control such as family history, and genetic factors, there are some health and lifestyle choices that can drastically reduce our risk for heart disease.
Heart disease is a generic term describing conditions where the heart is no longer functioning appropriately. However, this can actually occur for a variety of reasons. One form of heart disease is known as coronary heart disease. This type of heart disease is caused by the narrowing of the blood vessels that supply the heart. This can be caused by smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. This form of heart disease may lead to heart attacks as the blood supply to the heart is compromised.
A heart attack, or medically known as a myocardial infarction, results from an interruption of blood flow and oxygen delivery to the heart muscle. This is often secondary to blockage of one or more of the blood vessels that provide blood to the heart and can result in the
permanent damage to the area of the heart affected. These blockages can be the result of plaques, or waxy buildup in the vessels and can lead to sudden death or severe injury to the vital heart muscle. Advances in medical therapies have resulted in significant improvements in survival rates from heart attacks, however, it is still important to recognize the signs and symptoms of heart disease so that medical attention can be sought immediately to increase the chances of survival. Some of the more “classic” symptoms of heart disease include:
• Pressure or tightness in the chest often associated with activity or exertion
• Neck, jaw, arm or shoulder tightness often associated with activity or exertion
• New or worsening shortness of breath with activity (walking up a flight of stairs, walking down the driveway to the mailbox)
• Nausea or lightheadedness associated with any of the above symptoms
It is important to note that individuals with diabetes, women, and the elderly may experience “silent” heart attacks in which case they don’t experience the classic chest discomfort. These individuals may experience only new onset shortness of breath, or some of the other milder symptoms as listed.
Uncontrolled high blood pressure is one of the leading preventable causes of heart disease. It is currently estimated that 40% of African Americans have high blood pressure and many are uncontrolled. This can cause the heart muscle to thicken and overgrow, leading to poor muscle functioning.
A thickened heart muscle is often stiff and unable to pump blood and vital nutrients to the body effectively. A common complication of poor heart muscle function is known as congestive heart failure. In heart failure, the heart muscle is only pumping blood at a fraction of the capacity it should.
This leads to fluid overload in the body and can lead to death. Some common signs of heart failure include
extreme fatigue, leg swelling, shortness of breath worsened with activity or with lying down, and cough.
In addition to poor heart functioning due to a thickened muscle, the heart can also become dilated or overstretched. Dilated cardiomyopathy, or heart disease due to a stretched heart muscle can lead to pooling of blood in the heart and/or clot formation. This tendency for clot formation leads to an increased risk of strokes. This form of heart disease can be caused by obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, infection, and diabetes.
Heart health should be one of the most important parts of a lifestyle focused on wellness. Balanced nutrition and exercise, along with weight, blood pressure, and blood sugar control are all essential in maintaining a healthy heart and preventing the complications of heart disease. Making a commitment to the lifestyle changes that support heart health today just may save your life.
This was printed in February 12, 2012 - February 25, 2012 Edition