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Heart Disease: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

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What are Heart Diseases?

The term “heart disease” refers to a number of disorders that affect the heart and/or blood vessels. The symptoms, causes, treatments and outlooks vary widely among the different types. For example, a person can be born with a heart condition and live an active, normal life. On the other hand, someone who seems relatively healthy can have a sudden, life-altering heart attack.

Heart disease is also called cardiovascular disease, or CVD for short. Each year, it’s responsible for over 600,000 (or 1 in 4) deaths in the United States and 17 million deaths worldwide. A majority occur from a specific type of CVD called coronary heart disease (x, x).

Lifestyle, genetics and environmental factors play a role in the onset and complications related to heart disease. However, in many cases, changes in habits, regular check ups, medication, surgery and/or dietary supplements can all help people manage what are usually chronic conditions.

Types of Heart Diseases and Their Causes

There are many types of heart disease. This is by no means a complete list. Rather, these are examples of some of the more common ones:

Coronary Heart Disease

Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) is the most common type of heart disease (x). Sometimes other words are used interchangeably for CHD such as:

  • Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)
  • Ischemic Heart Disease
  • Arteriosclerosis
  • Atherosclerosis

Arteriosclerosis occurs when the blood vessels become hard and lose their elasticity. This impairs efficient blood flow to the whole body. A certain type of arteriosclerosis, called atherosclerosis, is caused by the accumulation of hard or sticky plaque inside the blood vessels. Fat, cholesterol, calcium, fibrin and other substances make up plaque (x).

When blood vessels work less efficiently or become blocked, oxygen-rich blood can’t get where it needs to go. This is called ischemia (x). Sometimes blood flow gets cut off from a certain organ like the heart or brain, leading to a heart attack or stroke, respectively.

Heart attacks (also known as myocardial infarctions) and strokes are not heart diseases themselves, but are consequences of CVD. They happen when plaque or a blood clot stops the flow of blood to the heart or brain. As a result, the heart or brain cells can’t get the oxygen they need and die. In some cases, damage is mild and a person can recover. In other cases, however, permanent disability or death occurs (x).

Peripheral artery disease (P.A.D.) is another type of CHD where blood doesn’t get to areas like the arms, legs, head and kidneys, causing numbness, tingling and loss of function in those areas. P.A.D. can also cause heart attacks and strokes (x).

Heart Failure

Heart failure, also known as congestive heart failure, happens when the heart cannot pump blood efficiently enough to meet the body’s demand for oxygen. When this happens, the body usually resorts to compensatory measures and sends blood only to the most critical organs like the brain. Areas like the kidneys or legs don’t receive as much blood and can lose some of their function (x).

Heart failure can be managed, but is a progressive disease that requires monitoring. People of any age can develop it, but it’s more likely to occur in those who are older or who have other heart conditions like CVD or high blood pressure (x).

Heart Rhythm Disorders

Heart arrhythmia refers to the condition where the heart beats at an abnormal rhythm. For example, the heartbeat could be too fast (called tachycardia) or too slow (called bradycardia).

Atrial fibrillation describes a fast, irregular heartbeat. This is the most common type of heart rhythm disorder and can lead to a stroke or heart attack.

Factors that contribute to arrhythmia include stress, smoking and having already had a heart attack. However, some people are just born with it (x).

Heart Valve Disease

The heart has four parts, or chambers. Blood flows into the two top chambers and out through the bottom two. Between each chamber is a valve that must open and close at just the right time to make sure the blood keeps flowing in the right direction. Problems can occur in any of the valves, causing the blood to flow inefficiently. Valve issues can be dangerous and symptomatic. Some people, however, experience no problems and may never be aware they have a heart valve abnormality (x).

Heart valves can experience three types of problems (x):

  • Regurgitation, also known as back flow, occurs when some blood flows back into a chamber. Mitral valve prolapse (MVP) is a common example of this type of condition. Many people have it, but may never be aware.
  • Stenosis describes the condition when heart valves become stiff or fuse together, preventing blood from flowing.
  • Atresia describes the condition where a valve has no opening through which blood can flow.

Heart valve diseases can be congenital (from birth) or develop over time as a result of aging or certain infections like rheumatic fever (x). Like other heart diseases, they can potentially increase the risk for heart attacks, strokes or heart failure (x).

Cyanotic Heart Disease

Babies can be born with a variety of heart defects that prevent the proper flow of blood and oxygen throughout the body. Since non-oxygenated blood can appear blue, this group of heart disorders is called “cyanotic”, referring to the resulting bluish color of babies’ skin.

Cyanotic heart disease often involves the heart valves. Genetics, chemicals or substances taken by the mother during pregnancy and certain infections like rubella that the mother may have had during pregnancy can increase the risk of a baby being born with this condition (x).

Lyme Carditis

Lyme carditis occurs when the bacteria from Lyme disease infects the heart, causing an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). About 1 percent of people with Lyme disease experience Lyme carditis, which can be fatal if not treated with antibiotics or a pacemaker (x).

Myocarditis

Myocarditis refers to inflammation of the myocardium, the layer of tissue surrounding the heart. People of any age can experience myocarditis. While researchers still aren’t sure what exactly causes it, bacteria, viruses and other pathogens and chemicals may play a role (x).

Symptoms of Heart Disease

While there are numerous types of heart disease, they all can potentially alter the flow of oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. Many heart conditions have similar symptoms which include (x):

  • Chest pain, which can feel sharp, dull, or like the heart is getting crushed or squeezed
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling in the legs, ankles or feet
  • Heart palpitations
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Weakness

In addition to the above, symptoms that may indicate you’re having a heart attack and that you should seek medical help immediately include:

Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Lots of factors can increase a person’s risk of developing heart disease and experiencing bad outcomes from it. Some factors, like genes, can’t be controlled. However, some can be.

High Blood Pressure

Elevated blood pressure puts strain on heart and blood vessels and can lead to heart disease (x). Lifestyle factors like smoking, alcohol use and being sedentary can contribute to high blood pressure, as can conditions like diabetes and obesity (x).

Diabetes

In addition to raising blood pressure, diabetes increases the risk not just of developing heart disease, but of dying from it. In fact, 68 percent of those over 65 with diabetes will die of heart disease. Diabetes is also associated with high cholesterol and obesity, both of which are themselves risk factors (x).

Obesity

Obesity often corresponds to high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and metabolic disorders like diabetes. Thus, obesity, which affects one third of Americans, is a big risk factor for heart disease. It increases the risk of heart attack, stroke and heart failure (x).

Smoking

Smoking is a major cause of heart disease and accounts for 20 percent of all heart disease-related deaths in the United States (x). It also causes Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a lung disease that puts people at a greater risk of dying from heart disease (x).

Genes

Some people happen to have a genetic predisposition for the risk factors of heart disease like developing high blood pressure or diabetes. Though genes do influence the way the body works, in many cases these conditions can be controlled through lifestyle (x). Fortunately, there are steps people can take to manage their health even when their genes work against them.

On the other hand, those with certain kinds of genetic heart diseases like congenital heart valve problems or cardiomyopathy may not have much control over the conditions (x).

Pneumonia

Pneumonia and heart diseases are related. About a million Americans are admitted to the hospital annually due to pneumonia. It is a severe infection in the lungs caused by viruses, bacteria or even fungi. Research shows that when older people are diagnosed with pneumonia, their chances of having a heart attack are four times more likely following the month of the infection (x). In other words, pneumonia may worsen the condition of pre-existing heart disease in the elderly.

Lupus

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that can affect the heart. It can cause swelling of the pericardium (the sac that surrounds the heart), a condition called pericarditis. Pericarditis is the number one cause of death among those with lupus (x).

Risk Factors of Heart Disease

How is Heart Disease Diagnosed?

Several tests can be used to help determine if someone has heart disease, such as (x):

  • Echocardiogram — an ultrasound that takes an image of the heart. This test can help detect abnormalities in the structure of the heart and how well the valves are working.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) — measures the electrical activity of the heart and can detect problems with heart rhythms.
  • Stress tests or exercise tolerance tests assess how the heart functions when put under physical stress such as walking on a treadmill.
  • Blood tests

Treatment for Heart Disease

How heart disease is managed depends on factors such as the type of condition, severity and the overall health of the patient. Medication, lifestyle habits, surgery and/or dietary supplements might all be part of an overall treatment plan for heart disease.

Medication

Your doctor can prescribe a variety of medications to help manage heart disease. Medications can lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, thin the blood to prevent clots from forming and improve the overall function of the heart (x).

Prescriptions for medications to manage heart disease are becoming increasingly common. In fact, as of 2012, 28 percent of adults aged 40 and over use cholesterol-lowering medication. By age 75, that number jumps to 48 percent (x).

Lifestyle

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is one of the most effective ways to prevent and treat heart diseases.

Following these diet recommendations can help keep off excess weight, maintain a healthy blood pressure, keep cholesterol levels down and provide anti-inflammatory and antioxidative nutrients (x):

  • Eat at least 5 serving of fruits and vegetables per day
  • Consume moderate amounts of good-quality proteins
  • Choose your starches wisely — eating whole grains and starchy vegetables, potatoes and legumes provide more fiber and nutrition than refined starches like white bread
  • Limit overall fat intake to 25-35 percent of calories per day
  • Eat only the amount of food needed to maintain a healthy weight
  • Avoid processed and packaged food as much as possible — instead, try to eat food in its most whole, natural form

Studies show that the Mediterranean diet and Paleo diet support heart health (x).

In addition, exercising as little as 30 minutes per day can significantly improve cardiovascular conditions (x).

Surgery

Depending on the heart condition, sometimes surgery is needed. For example, surgical intervention can correct a congenital heart condition, open up blocked arteries, or be necessary to insert a pacemaker (a device that keeps the heart rate steady).

Supplements for Heart Health

In addition to a healthy lifestyle, dietary supplements can do wonders for contributing to overall health, preventing heart diseases and supporting treatment if they develop. Always check with your doctor before using supplements, especially if you already take medication.

Pumpkin Seed Extract

Pumpkin seed extract is a good source of magnesium, fatty acids, zinc and antioxidants, which keeps the heart healthy (x). As a dietary supplement, take 550 mg daily, or as directed by a physician.

Hesperidin

Hesperidin is a naturally occurring bioflavonoid mainly present in lemons and oranges, but also found in other fruits and vegetables. It supports blood and heart health and boosts immune function (x). As a dietary supplement, take 500 mg (1/4 tsp) of hesperidin powder one to two times daily with food and water, or as directed by a physician. However, talk to your doctor before taking this product if you are pregnant or nursing. Do not take if you have a bleeding disorder or a history of low blood pressure. Also, avoid for at least two weeks before a scheduled surgery.

Tart Cherry Extract Powder

Tart cherry extract can help lower cholesterol and triglycerides levels, which improves the condition of the heart (x). As a dietary supplement, take 2,500 mg once daily with food, or as directed by a physician.

Hawthorn Berry Extract Powder

Hawthorn berries contain phytonutrients including anthocyanidins and proanthocyanidins — antioxidants that strengthen blood vessel walls. They may also reduce symptoms of congestive heart failure, irregular heartbeat, arrhythmia, low blood pressureangina, atherosclerosis and high cholesterol (x, x). As a dietary supplement, take 1,200 mg of hawthorn berry extract powder one to two times daily, or as directed by a physician.

Lycopene Powder

Lycopene is a bright red, naturally occurring compound found in red fruits and vegetables. Rich in antioxidants and vitamin A, it contributes to heart health by reducing cell damage and possibly lowering blood pressure (x). As a dietary supplement, take 200 mg of pure lycopene powder once or twice daily, or as directed by physician.

Fish Oil Soft Gels

High triglycerides are a risk factor for heart disease, and research shows that those who eat two servings of fatty fish per week or take a supplement rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish oil soft gels, have lower triglyceride levels. It also reduces markers of inflammation that can lead to coronary events like heart attack or stroke. In addition, just as some people take aspirin for their heart to reduce blood coagulation, omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil work in the same way (x). Suggested serving size for this supplement is 2 capsules which could be taken 2-3 times per day.

The Bottom Line

Heart disease is an umbrella term for the wide variety of diseases that can affect the function and/or structure of a person’s heart. The symptoms can vary from chronic to acute and from mild to severe.

Heart diseases can be caused by a variety of things. For instance, they can be hereditary, be brought on by an infection or develop as a result of lifestyle choices.

Treatment for heart diseases depends on the underlying causes, though medication is usually prescribed to mitigate the symptoms and prolong life. Diet, exercise and lifestyle changes are usually necessary to manage heart diseases. In addition, quitting smoking, eating healthily and following doctor’s orders can help support heart health.

About the author

Christian Jean Francia


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