Heart Disease. We hear this term often but rarely is it defined.
So what is heart disease and how do we know if we are at risk of developing it?
Heart disease is broken down into two distinct categories: acute and chronic.
An acute cardiac event such as a stroke or heart attack is characterized by chest pain, chest tightness, discomfort or angina, difficulty breathing, numbness or weakness in the left arm or leg, dizziness or lightheadedness, and acute pain that is experienced without relief.
Many times patients report that there is increased pressure in their chest like someone is sitting on top of them. Pain in the neck, jaw, throat, and upper abdomen can also be a sign that you’re having an acute cardiac event. These symptoms require an immediate medical assessment to rule out the possibility of a heart attack.
Chronic heart disease, on the other hand, is the slow development and aging of the heart caused by damage or closing of the blood vessels due to plaque buildup. As plaque builds up in the blood vessels and arteries, it becomes oxidized and it causes an increase in blood pressure leading to a decrease of oxygen in the blood.
Unlike the sudden nature of an acute cardiac event, these symptoms develop over an extended period of time and while they can lead to a heart attack or acute cardiac event, they can be also be prevented if we are able to make the lifestyle and dietary changes necessary to keep our heart healthy and well.
Now that we know what heart disease is, and we know that the heart is your most important organ, let’s talk about some of the risk factors that lead to its development.
As we get older, there is naturally an increase in damage to the heart and a narrowing and weakening of the arteries and heart muscles. It’s part of the aging process, so it’s important to get tested regularly for heart disease once we reach the age of 50. I recommend getting a baseline EKG and echocardiogram at 50 and every 2-3 years after. These tests can detect many dysfunctions of the heart, including anatomical and congenital defects.
I also recommend getting a carotid ultrasound to measure plaque buildup and to make sure that blood is flowing efficiently to all areas of the heart. These tests can be ordered by your primary care physician and are essential to ensure that the heart is functioning well.
Males are generally at greater risk of developing heart disease. However, the risk of developing heart disease as a female increases significantly after menopause due to a decrease in estrogen production. Estrogen is cardioprotective and healthy estrogen levels help prevent plaque buildup in the arteries and blood vessels and ultimately, keep our hearts young, healthy, and strong.
In addition to having your heart function tested with an EKG, echocardiogram, and sonogram, it’s important for women to also have their female hormone levels tested as they approach menopause. If hormone levels are out of balance, they can be treated with a bioidentical, natural source of estrogen.
3. Family History
If you have a family history of heart disease – coronary heart disease, angina, heart attack, heart failure, or stroke – you have an increased risk of developing heart disease yourself. Family history is determined by the following criteria:
A father or brother who developed heart disease before the age of 55
A mother or sister who developed heart disease before the age of 65
Many heart abnormalities, including valve and anatomical defects, are genetic, so it is important to make sure your primary care physician is aware of your family history so they can monitor your heart health accordingly.
Smokers are almost twice as likely to have a heart attack compared with people who have never smoked, even if they exercise and maintain a healthy weight. Nicotine restricts the blood vessels and damages the inner lining of the arteries, which can lead to a buildup of plaque.
Stopping smoking is the single best thing you can do to support the health of your heart – your risk of developing heart disease significantly decreases after you quit.
5. Poor Diet
A diet high in hydrogenated and trans fats also puts you at risk of developing heart disease. Hydrogenated fats are made from vegetable oils that are very unstable in their natural form, meaning they spoil or become rancid quickly. To avoid this problem, manufacturers alter the fat by adding hydrogen atoms, this solidifies the oil which was previously liquid at room temperature. Margarine is a classic example of a hydrogenated fat. These oils are quite damaging to the heart as they increase cholesterol levels in the blood, which can lead to clogged arteries.
In addition, consuming sugar, processed foods, and carbohydrates in excess, can also cause early damaging of the heart and increase the risk of developing heart disease.
6. High Blood Pressure
Elevated and uncontrolled blood pressure can result in the hardening or thickening of the arteries and narrowing of the vessels through which the blood flows, increasing your risk of stroke or heart attack.
7. High Cholesterol Levels
When there is too much cholesterol in the blood, it builds up in the walls of the arteries. This can cause atherosclerosis, a form of heart disease. If you have high cholesterol, it’s important to monitor it with a comprehensive lipid panel – blood work that not only measures total cholesterol, good cholesterol, and bad cholesterol but also measures the size of the cholesterol particles in your blood and how quickly they are oxidizing. The more abnormal they are in size, the higher the risk of damaging the arteries and blood vessels.
Anyone with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher is considered obese. Obesity, a term used to describe the health condition of anyone significantly over their ideal weight, can contribute to increased cholesterol and triglyceride levels, high blood pressure, and diabetes. All of these conditions can cause damage to the heart and increase the risk of heart disease.
In stressful situations, the body releases chemicals such as cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) to prepare our bodies for action. When we are in danger this response is healthy, however, when we are chronically stressed these chemicals are produced in increased quantities all the time which can cause damage to the heart.
10. Exposure to Toxins
Environmental toxins and heavy metals, like mercury, lead, and arsenic, greatly increase the risk of developing heart disease since they cause premature aging of the heart, arteries, and blood vessels. If you have a history of heart disease, have high blood pressure, or are at high risk of developing heart disease, it’s important to have your heavy metal levels tested and begin chelation, if necessary.
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It’s important to know your risk factors. It’s the first step to preventing heart disease. Chronic heart disease can be managed if it is diagnosed and addressed early.
Reach out to your primary care physician to get the proper testing – EKG, echocardiogram, and a comprehensive lipid panel. And if you ever experience an acute cardiac event, contact your doctor or go to the emergency room immediately.