Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. It is also a major cause of disability, limiting the activity and eroding the quality of life for millions of people. People age 65 and older are much more likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes and to develop heart disease. This month, we are joining organizations all over the nation in recognizing American Heart Month to help increase awareness about heart disease and its effects. We are also encouraging those with heart disease or at risk for the condition to be “heart smart” by making healthy lifestyle changes and learning more about heart disease.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease is caused by atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of fatty deposits, or plaques, in the walls of the coronary arteries over time. The coronary arteries surround the outside of the heart and supply blood nutrients and oxygen to the heart muscle. When plaque builds up inside the arteries, there is less space for blood to flow normally and deliver oxygen to the heart. If the flow of blood to the heart is reduced by plaque buildup or is blocked if a plaque suddenly ruptures, it can cause angina (chest pain or discomfort) or a heart attack. When the heart muscle does not get enough oxygen and blood nutrients, the heart muscle cells will die (heart attack) and weaken the heart, diminishing its ability to pump blood to the rest of the body.
Signs of heart disease
A person in the early stages of heart disease may not have any symptoms or the symptoms may be barely noticeable. That’s why regular checkups with a doctor are important. The following symptoms should be reported to a doctor or health care provider:
- Pain, numbness, and/or tingling in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw or back
- Shortness of breath when active, at rest, or while lying flat
- Chest pain during physical activity that gets better when you rest
- Cold sweats
- Tiredness or fatigue
- Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, stomach and/or neck
- Reduced ability to exercise or be physically active
- Problems doing your normal activities
Be “heart smart”
Making healthy changes can lower the risk of developing heart disease. Controlling and preventing risk factors is also important for people who already have heart disease. To lower the risk factors:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Quit smoking and stay away from secondhand smoke
- Control your cholesterol, blood pressure and/or diabetes
- Drink alcohol in moderation
- Get active
- Eat a heart-healthy diet
- Manage stress