Heart disease: Risks, types and prevention

By JAMES D. LOMAX
Posted 2/2/22

February is the American Heart Association’s American Heart Month. This annual recognition continues because of the continuing prevalence of cardiovascular diseases as the major source of …

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Heart disease: Risks, types and prevention

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February is the American Heart Association’s American Heart Month. This annual recognition continues because of the continuing prevalence of cardiovascular diseases as the major source of disability and cause of death in the U.S. and other Western countries.  

The umbrella of conditions labeled as cardiovascular diseases includes blood vessel disease, heart rhythm problems, congenital heart defects, heart valve disease, heart muscle diseases and heart infections.

The American Heart Association (AHA) breaks down high-risk “cardiovascular” conditions into coronary artery blockage that leads to heart attacks, strokes, the adverse effects of chronic high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation and other abnormal heart rhythms. Other types of heart disease include congestive heart failure, valve diseases, aneurysms, endocarditis (heart infections) and strokes. For most of us, this list of heart problems is overwhelming.

This article will provide you with an overview of heart conditions, risk factors, causes and lifestyle prevention of heart disease.

Risk factors

There are a number of risk factors that either cause or complicate underlying heart conditions.  

Aging.

Men are generally at greater risk of heart disease. The risk for women increases after menopause.

A family history of early heart disease is associated with a risk of coronary artery disease.

Nicotine tightens your blood vessels, and carbon monoxide can damage their inner lining, making them more susceptible to atherosclerosis.  

A diet that’s high in fat, salt, sugar and cholesterol can contribute to the development of heart and vascular disease.

Uncontrolled high blood pressure can result in hardening and thickening of your arteries, narrowing the vessels through which blood flows.

High levels of cholesterol in your blood can lead to plaque formation and atherosclerosis of peripheral blood vessels.

Diabetes increases your risk of heart disease. Both conditions share similar risk factors, such as obesity and high blood pressure.

Excess weight typically worsens other heart disease risk factors.

Lack of exercise also is associated with many forms of heart disease.  

Unrelieved stress may damage your arteries and worsen other risk factors for heart disease.

Poor dental health can lead to endocarditis.

COVID-19 can cause inflammation of the heart muscles that can either be temporary or lead to long-term problems. Vaccination can reduce this problem.

Types and causes of heart diseases

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common condition. It is caused by the buildup of fatty plaques in your heart arteries. This buildup of plaques narrows and blocks critical coronary arteries that can lead to chest pain, radiation of pain, shortness of breath, stroke and heart muscle damage.

CAD is also associated with heart arrhythmias.  There are a number of risk factors that can increase the possibility of irregular heart rhythms. Irregular heartbeats are often felt as the racing, fluttering or slowing down of the pulse. In severe cases, the person may get dizzy, lightheaded or pass out.

Eating a healthy diet has many benefits.
Eating a healthy diet has many benefits.

Heart failure is a general term that is used to describe a heart that fails to pump an adequate volume of blood. It can be caused by a combination of cardiovascular, valvular disease, infection or cardiomyopathy.

Congenital cardiac valve and heart muscle abnormalities may affect the infant or child but in some cases are not diagnosed until adulthood. Infants and young children will show shortness of breath, poor weight gain and cyanosis of the skin. Adults will develop shortness of breath during exercise, will tire easily and the hands, feet and ankles will swell.  

Heart infections, referred to as endocarditis, affect the internal structures of chambers and heart valves. Fever, shortness of breath, weakness, dry cough, changes of heart rhythm and mental confusion are observed.

Valvular heart disease is caused by damage of the heart valves, leading to narrowing of the opening or leakage of the valve. As it worsens, blood flow through the heart can be affected by a decrease in cardiac output. Fatigue, shortness of breath, swelling of the feet and ankles, chest pain and fainting are often observed.

Cardiomyopathy is a thickening and enlargement of heart muscle. The most common type of cardiomyopathy involves the decreased function of the left ventricle. Heart attacks, infections, certain drugs—especially chemotherapy agents—can exacerbate this problem. Other types of cardiomyopathies are inherited or related to aging or high blood pressure.

Strokes happen when arteries to your brain are narrowed or blocked so there is insufficient blood flow to brain structures.

Prevention of heart diseases   

There are a some factors that we cannot change, such as aging or family history. Common-sense lifestyle changes are key to minimizing underlying heart conditions or in some cases delaying the onset of cardiac problems. Here is a partial list:  

  • Do not smoke.
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes per day for most days of the week.
  • Eat a diet that is lower in salt and saturated fats.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Reduce stress in your life.
  • Get regular medical and dental checkups.
  • Control your blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes by diet and/or medication.

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