Heart disease is any illness or disorder affecting the heart muscle. While many things can cause heart disorders, Atherosclerosis, or fatty buildup in the arteries, is a major component in many cases of heart disease.
When arteries are obstructed through fatty buildup, blood cannot flow properly to and from the heart. This can lead to a host of health problems, including heart attack.
Some heart disorders are genetic. These are referred to as congenital heart defects.
Who Gets Heart Disease?
Anyone can be affected by heart disease, but it is more common in adults over the age of 50. There are several factors for heart disease which can increase individual risk. Those who are obese or inactive are at a higher risk, as well as those who eat a poor diet. Smokers also see a marked increase in heart disease compared with those who do not smoke. There is some indication that genetics may also play a role in the development of heart disease, although this is not always a good predictor of overall risk.
What are the Symptoms of Heart Disease?
The symptoms of heart disease can be easy to miss, especially in those who don’t realize they are affected. Potential symptoms may be chest pain, shortness of breath, numbness or coldness in the extremities, rapid or fluttering heart rate, pain in the chest or jaw areas, dizziness and fainting. Symptoms may vary between men and women, and between types of heart disease.
Those with chest pain should seek medical attention immediately for an evaluation.
How is Heart Disease Diagnosed?
If heart disease is suspected, patients will have a thorough medical exam. An echocardiogram may be performed, which is a type of sonogram in which a doctor views 2D or 3D pictures of the heart muscle. Other tests which may be used include an EKG, or electrocardiogram, chest X-ray, biopsy, or stress test. According to WebMD, there is no one specific test which can diagnose all forms of heart disease.
Treating Heart Disease
Treatment for heart disease varies based on the type. Medications are often used to thin the blood and allow for better passage through the arteries in those who have blockages. Other medications help regulate heart rhythms, lower blood pressure, or lower cholesterol. Those with severe cases may require surgery to repair diseased or blocked areas of the heart, or in some cases a heart transplant may be necessary.
Those with heart disease, or who are at high risk of heart disease, should follow dietary and lifestyle guidelines set up by their doctors. These guidelines will generally include not smoking cigarettes and other tobacco problems, as these can cause or worsen heart disease.
How does Smoking Contribute to Heart Disease?
Smoking may cause heart disease in a variety of ways. Smoking of tobacco products impairs the lungs, which can lead to reduced blood flow into the heart, and cause an inability to remain physically active. Tobacco products containing nicotine have also been shown to increase blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease. In some patients, smoking may also lower HDL or “good” cholesterol, another risk factor.
Studies have shown that women who smoke and take prescription hormonal birth control pills have a much higher chance of developing heart disease than women in the same age range who don’t smoke. Additionally, smoking is the primary cause of cardiovascular diseases in people under the age of 35.
To prevent heart disease, smoking should be avoided. Those who smoke should quit. In many cases, the cardiovascular risk drops considerably the longer one goes without tobacco products.
Smoking Effects on Cardiovascular Health
Smoking causes widespread inflammation throughout the body, which makes cardiovascular disease a greater risk. Researchers aren’t sure yet exactly how inflammation is linked to heart disease, but they do know that the link is undeniable. Smoking damages the blood vessels and makes it harder for the blood to carry oxygen throughout the body, which may be somehow linked to inflammation.
Raises Blood Pressure
Smoking increases your blood pressure. The reason that a higher blood pressure level is dangerous and contributes to heart disease is because it means that your heart has to work harder to pump blood through your body. The heart is a muscle, and it can become weaker when it has to work too hard.
The amount that you smoke seems to be linked to the amount of increase in your blood pressure as well. A British study found that light smokers (less than nine cigarettes a day) had a much lower risk of having high blood pressure than heavier smokers. When it comes to smoking and high blood pressure concerns, it is best if you can quit altogether, but significantly cutting back can still make a difference, too.
Risks for Women
Although many people assume the typical heart disease victim is an older male, people of any age or gender can be afflicted. Women in particular are at greater risk if they use birth control pills while smoking; the combination of the hormones plus smoking seems to intensify damage to the heart. Although smoking while taking birth control pills causes increased health risks in all women, this combination is particularly dangerous for women over 35 years of age.
Contributes to Atherosclerosis
Atherosclerosis means that fatty deposits, or plaque, have built up inside the arteries. As these plaque deposits build up, they eventually narrow the arteries and make it harder for blood to flow through them. When the arteries get narrower, the heart has to beat much harder to push the blood through them. The body seems to think this plaque is a foreign substance and tries to isolate it from the blood, but in certain circumstances the plaques can rupture. Pieces of ruptured plaque can combine with blood clots and lead to heart attacks.
Peripheral Arterial Disease
Peripheral Arterial Disease, or PAD, occurs when the body’s blood flow becomes blocked by plaque that has caused veins to become narrow. Blood cannot flow freely through tight and constricted veins, which means that the body parts that depend on receiving blood are deprived of necessary oxygen.
Peripheral arterial disease can be extremely serious. This lack of blood flow can cause gangrene and tissue death, particularly in the legs and feet, although it can also occur in other parts of the body like the arteries that carry blood to your head, heart and kidneys. Sometimes amputation is required when PAD has caused too much loss of blood flow for too long. Symptoms of PAD can include a heavy sensation in the legs and difficulty with walking or climbing stairs. Smoking is the main risk factor for developing peripheral arterial disease. Smokers and former smokers are up to four times more likely to develop PAD compared to non-smokers.
Although heart disease is often genetic, there are ways that you can work to reduce your risk of heart disease. Some ways that you can try to prevent developing heart disease include the following:
- Quit smoking. Because smoking causes about two out of every five deaths, it’s arguably the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease.
- Get regular exercise. You don’t have to spend hours in the gym, just move a little bit each day. Find an activity you enjoy so exercise will be more enjoyable.
- Maintain a healthy diet. Avoid fast food, processed foods and a lot of sugar, and fill up on heart-healthy fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Unwind and relax. Too much stress raises your blood pressure, which is bad for your heart.
For more motivation to quit smoking once and for all, visit The Real Cost of Smoking.
Read more about the effects cigarette smoke has on the human body at The Effects of Smoking.
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