American Heart Month in February is a time to take stock of our heart health and the factors that contribute to heart disease. Did you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States? One of every four deaths is attributed to heart disease, making it a significant health concern for Americans.
The good news is that heart disease can be prevented. With increased awareness about heart disease and the factors that affect heart health, decreasing the risk of heart disease is possible. We turned to Anabel Facemire, MD, a cardiologist with Dignity Health Medical Group — Sierra Nevada to better understand heart disease.
Heart Disease + Symptoms
The term “heart disease” refers to several different heart conditions. In the U.S., coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease. It causes plaque buildup in the arteries and restricts blood flow to the heart over time. Chest pain, also known as angina, arrhythmia (fluttering in the chest), heart failure and heart attack also fall under the definition of heart disease. These are significant health issues and many people may experience no symptoms at all until these occur.
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, abdomen or neck veins
All of these conditions are serious and you should consult your doctor immediately if you are experiencing any of these symptoms. If you are experiencing pain or discomfort in your chest, especially in the center or left side of the chest for more than a few minutes, call 9-1-1 immediately. This is a common sign of a heart attack and can feel like an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, pain or fullness in the chest, upper back or neck.
Signs of a heart attack:
- Pain or discomfort in the chest
- Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, back, shoulders, or one or both arms
- Nausea or vomiting
- Extreme fatigue
- Shortness of breath
Men and women may experience different symptoms. “In men, we typically see excruciating chest tightness or shortness of breath as clues that there may be a heart issue,” says Dr. Facemire. “It’s common for women to overlook fatigue, but they need to pay attention to feeling overly tired or a sudden jaw pain, both of which can be symptoms of heart disease.”
What Causes Heart Disease?
Many health conditions can impact heart health, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hypercalcemia (high levels of calcium in the blood), immune diseases and diabetes. High levels of stress, smoking and alcohol use, poor nutrition, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, and family health history are also factors that can contribute to heart disease.
People with diabetes are at an elevated risk for heart disease because they are more likely to have conditions like high blood pressure, high levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides (a certain type of fat in the blood) that increase the risk for heart disease. Dr. Facemire notes that people with autoimmune diseases that cause inflammation, like rheumatoid arthritis, are also at higher risk for heart disease.
Women have an even higher risk of heart disease and stroke, which causes 1 in 3 deaths each year, according to the American Heart Association. While heart disease can affect women of all ages, different life events like pregnancy and menopause cause hormonal changes that increase the risk of heart disease. It is especially important for women to understand the risk factors, and get screened for heart disease at their regular doctor’s visit.
Aerobic exercise is very powerful and can decrease blood pressure. Dr. Facemire recommends spending time outdoors exercising every day, whether it’s walking, jogging or any other movement; making exercise part of your daily routine is great for heart health. A great way to incorporate exercise into your routine is by taking a 10-minute walk after every meal.
“For the average American, about 150 minutes a week of exercise is recommended,” says Dr. Facemire. “One exercise I like to share with my patients is interval walking. Walk fast for 30 seconds, then slowly for three minutes and repeat.”
Staying hydrated is incredibly beneficial for the circulatory system. Drinking 8-10 glasses of water a day is the standard recommendation, but there is an even more precise way to calculate your water intake. Calculate half of your body weight, then convert that to ounces to get the ideal amount of water you should be drinking daily to most benefit your cardiovascular health.
Eat Heart-Healthy Foods
Another key component of heart disease prevention is nutrition. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables every day is an important part of a heart-healthy diet. Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, bok choy, parsley, chard and spinach form nitric oxide, which helps dilate the arteries. “I tell my patients, you have three times a day to fight inflammation in your body — breakfast, lunch and dinner,” says Dr. Facemire.
Making changes to your diet can seem intimidating, so it can help to start small. Make changes like, eating a big salad daily, including berries for breakfast, and limiting dessert to once a week.
Examine Your Sleep
Sleep apnea, when breathing starts and stops during sleep, can contribute to high blood pressure. When your oxygen goes down from not breathing, your arteries constrict which causes your blood pressure to increase. Identifying sleep apnea, and treating it, can help you reach normal oxygenation levels at night, meaning your blood pressure can go down.
Refrain from Smoking and Excessive Alcohol Consumption
Smoking — and exposure to secondhand smoke — can affect the function of your body’s cardiovascular system. When you breathe in cigarette smoke, you are contaminating the oxygen that will be distributed throughout your body. The contaminated oxygen can permanently damage your heart and blood vessels, leading to heart disease. After just 8 hours of quitting smoking your oxygen levels return to normal and nicotine levels decrease over 90%. After 1 year, the risk of stroke has reduced significantly. If you do smoke, the earlier you can quit the better, here’s why, according to the FDA.
Over time, alcohol consumption can also contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. According to a study published in the European Heart Journal, having one small drink a day — about four ounces of wine, 11 ounces of beer or 1.3 ounces of spirits — was associated with a 16% increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation when compared to those who abstained from alcohol altogether.
Check-in With Your Doctor
Another good way to assess heart disease risk is to examine your daily habits. Dr. Facemire recommends bringing any concerns you may have to your next doctor’s appointment.
“Bringing questions and concerns to your doctor can help them better understand and treat any underlying health issues that can contribute to heart disease,” says Dr. Facemire. “But if you go to your appointment and you say you are doing ‘fine,’ when in fact there is something you are concerned about, your doctor may not be able to catch symptoms as quickly, which can prolong diagnosing and treating heart disease.”
Your genes are not your destiny! While you can’t change your genetic makeup and predisposition to heart disease, making positive lifestyle changes can significantly change the trajectory of your heart health and "turn off" our genetic risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Start by making small changes to your nutrition, increase your physical activity, lower your stress levels, increase your daily water intake, and get connected with the people you love.
“Be sure to keep up on your regular appointments with your physician — especially if you have any risk factors for heart disease or other heart conditions,” says Dr. Facemire. “Having your blood work and cholesterol checked with your physician can identify underlying conditions and help direct treatment.”
Take note of your habits, blood pressure and cholesterol, and bring up any questions or concerns you have at your next doctor’s appointment.
“Physicians and patients are partners,” says Dr. Facemire. “As a patient, you play a critical role in your health care. Take lead on your care by asking questions and keeping records.”
Reach out to your primary care physician to schedule a physical during American Heart Month, or consult our “Find a Doctor” tool to find a one in your area.