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Heart Health—Your Life Depends on It

Medically Reviewed by

Heart Health—Your Life Depends on It

Every 40 seconds, a heart-related condition claims the life of another American.  In fact, heart disease is the number one cause of death in the nation, killing over 375,000 people each year.  According to the American Heart Association, identifying the seven risk factors that directly affect heart health and taking steps to correct unhealthy lifestyles and habits can prevent many of those deaths.  Once changes are made, the risks of heart disease and heart-related conditions can be reduced considerably.

7 Key Risk Factors for heart conditions include:

  • Smoking
  • Physical Activity
  • Healthy Diet
  • Overweight/obesity
  • Cholesterol
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Blood sugar/Diabetes

Heart Disease—A Common Enemy

Heart disease is a broad term that covers many types of heart-related conditions including, Coronary Artery Disease, (CAD that can lead to heart attack), heart failure, angina, and heart arrhythmias.

Coronary Artery Disease is the most common heart disease in the United States however, caused by plaque build-up in the arteries that supply blood to the heart.  The plaque that comes from cholesterol in the bloodstream narrows the arteries over time, blocking the flow of blood to the heart.  When the heart gets less blood than it needs, individuals can experience chest pains, called angina.  This can even lead to heart failure if left untreated long enough.  Sometimes the heart can develop an irregular heartbeat, or heart arrhythmia as a direct result of plaque build up as well.  When plaque clogs the artery walls blocking blood flow altogether, or breaks off and clogs arteries, a heart attack occurs.

Heart Conditions—Life Altering And Life Threatening

Many heart conditions may be treated or managed over the course of a lifetime including, heart failure, arrhythmia or heart valve problems.   According to the Centers for Disease Control however, about one in every four people die in this country due to heart disease every year.  Many of these deaths are due to stroke or heart attack.

Heart Failure

When we hear the term “heart failure” we likely assume that the heart is no longer working. This is not the case.  Heart failure refers to the fact that the heart is not working as efficiently as it should be.  Because the heart supplies cells with oxygen and blood carrying nutrients, the body becomes fatigued and cannot function properly when it isn’t pumping at one hundred percent.  While heart failure is a progressive, chronic condition many people manage it successfully under a physician’s care.


A heart “arrhythmia” involves a change to the normal rhythms of the heart. Electrical impulses from the sinoatrial node may force the heart to beat irregularly—too fast, too slow, or erratically.  This causes the heart to pump blood in an ineffective manner.  A heart arrhythmia can be brief and harmless, or long-term and life threatening. This can lead to the eventual shutdown or damage of the lungs, brain, or other organs.  Many people will lead normal lives after the implantation of a pacemaker to regulate electrical impulses, however.

Heart Valve Problems

Heart valve problems can affect individuals gradually over time, or develop after certain illnesses such as, rheumatic fever or infective endocarditis. Valves can sometimes be too tight due to a condition known as “stenosis” that does not allow enough blood flow into the main pumping chamber of the heart. In other cases, leaky valves referred to as, “regurgitant valves” allow blood to flow back through the valves, causing the heart to work much harder to pump the same amount of blood.

Symptoms of valve disease can include chest pain, fatigue, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath.  Heart valve problems are generally treatable through surgery.  If left untreated however, they can be life threatening.

Heart Attack

Every 34 seconds, a heart attack occurs in the United States.  When blood flow to the heart muscle is interrupted, vital oxygen and nutrients necessary to keep it alive can’t reach it.  When damage occurs as a result of this starvation, a heart attack results.  This happens because coronary arteries that carry blood to the heart muscle become blocked from the sticky substance known as “plaque”.  This is created from fat and cholesterol.  Plaque can break off and blood clots can form around it, seriously blocking arteries.

Heart Attack Symptoms

Under ordinary physical activity, the following could be symptoms of a heart attack:

  • Excessive fatigue—fatigue beyond the usual amount
  • Heart Palpitations—feelings or sensations that the heart is beating too fast
  • or missing a beat
  • Dyspnea—difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain—pain or discomfort in the chest from an increase in activity

High Blood Pressure—Costs and Consequences

While 80 million U.S. adults reportedly have high blood pressure, the costs to our healthcare system are staggering, and the consequences to our health can be life threatening.  In the latest figures, gathered by the Centers For Disease Control, over 46 billion dollars was spent in 2011 alone in services, medication and missed days of work because of it.

High blood pressure gone unchecked can seriously damage the arteries, heart and other major organs in the body.  Over time the arteries stretch with the high pressure of blood flowing through them.  When the systolic pressure rises above 180 or the diastolic pressure rises above 110, it is critical to seek emergency medical treatment.

Health consequences of untreated high blood pressure may include:

  • Heart and coronary artery damage—heart attack, heart disease, congestive heart failure, aortic dissection and atherosclerosis
  • Stroke
  • Vision loss
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Fluid in the lungs
  • Kidney damage
  • Peripheral artery disease
  • Memory loss
  • Angina

High blood pressure increases your risk for heart attack, stroke, heart failure or kidney disease if you have other risk factors such as:

  • Age
  • Heredity (including race)
  • High cholesterol
  • Overweight
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Physical inactivity
  • Male gender

The Cholesterol Concern

Contrary to what you might have heard, cholesterol itself is not all bad.  In fact, cholesterol is necessary for cell walls to produce vitamin D, hormones, and bile acids to digest fat.  This wax-like substance is vital for life, but only in limited amounts.  The liver produces cholesterol, and it is also found in certain cholesterol rich foods, such as poultry, meat, and full-fat dairy.  Too much cholesterol can cause plaque to form in the arteries, blocking blood flow to the heart, and a heart attack can occur.  If clots form and restrict blood to the brain, it could result in a stroke.

Heart Disease—Prevention Practices

There are a number of lifestyle changes individuals can make to decrease the risk of heart disease.  Much of what we do on a daily basis is habit and can be modified to make us healthier.


Smokers who smoke a pack of cigarettes a day are twice as likely to suffer a heart attack than individuals who have never smoked.  Smokers are also at greater risk for coronary heart disease.  This includes exposure to second-hand smoke.

High cholesterol

As cholesterol numbers rise, so does the risk of coronary heart disease.

Total Cholesterol: This should remain below 180

Low-density-lipoprotein or (LDL) cholesterol is bad cholesterol

Lower LDL levels are good for heart health  

High-density-lipoprotein or (HDL) cholesterol is good cholesterol


Triglyceride is a type of fat in the blood and varies by age and gender.  This is stored for energy between meals when the body doesn’t need it right away. High triglyceride levels in addition to low HDL cholesterol, (or high LDL cholesterol) can cause atherosclerosis, or fat to build up in artery walls.  This will increase the risk for heart attack and stroke.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure causes the heart to work harder and thickens the muscle itself.  It also increases the risk for stroke, heart attack, kidney failure, and congestive heart failure.Physical inactivity

Inactivity puts individuals at risk for coronary heart disease.  Moderate, long-term physical activity can help reduce cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.


Excess body fat, especially if it is around the waist increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Extra weight makes the heart work harder, because blood pressure is higher.  Weight also raises cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well.


Diabetes increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, especially if blood sugar goes uncontrolled.  Statistically, 65% or more of diabetics die from a blood vessel related or heart disease.


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