You might have a vague idea about heart disease, or you might know a lot about it. Either way, heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the United States, making it a subject worth talking about regardless. Here are six things you need to know, starting with what qualifies as “heart disease.”
What is Heart Disease?
The term “heart disease” covers multiple conditions that affect the heart. These conditions include coronary artery disease, arrhythmias, congenital heart defects and others. Most often, heart disease refers to cardiovascular disease, which is a condition caused by plaque buildup that leads to narrowed or blocked blood vessels. This blockage can lead to chest pain, stroke or heart attack. The more than 600,000 deaths attributed to heart disease each year makes it the leading cause of death in the U.S. Put another way, one out of every four deaths in the U.S. is caused by heart disease. Anyone, including children, can develop heart disease. Lifestyle choices play the key role, though some conditions occur due to genetics. Smoking, a poor diet and a lack of exercise all increase the risk of developing heart disease.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women.
We’ve said it twice already, but let’s let this fact sink in, especially where women are concerned. While it’s true that more than half of the deaths caused by heart disease each year are men, more than 40 million women are currently living with some form heart disease, and it’s the leading cause of death among women in the U.S. According to the American College of Cardiology, more than 35 percent of all women’s deaths in America are attributed to heart disease. Five times as many women die from heart attacks as breast cancer each year. Women are actually more likely to die after a first heart attack than men.
Race and ethnicity play a smaller role than you might think.
Certain minority groups do have a greater risk of developing heart disease than others, and the prevalence of high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity seen in some populations compared to others plays a role. But there are studies that show while differences do exist, a person’s lifestyle and environment appear to play a much larger role in determining who has heart disease than one’s genetic makeup.
Half of all Americans have at least one risk factor for developing heart disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that 49 percent of people in the U.S. smoke, have high cholesterol or have hypertension. Each of these things increases the odds of developing heart disease. Low-density lipoprotein (the “bad” cholesterol) clogs arteries. Hypertension increases pressure, damaging artery walls. And chemicals found in tobacco smoke promote plaque buildup. Other high-risk conditions and behaviors include diabetes, obesity, excessive alcohol intake, poor diet and lack of exercise.
If you have heart disease, you need to get your flu shot every year.
Heart disease weakens your immune system and makes it harder to combat conditions like the flu. In addition, the flu virus can make heart disease worse, which increases the chances of a heart attack. When getting the yearly flu vaccine, those with heart disease should only get it by injection and not the nasal spray. There are differences between injections and sprays, and the nasal spray is not recommended for someone with heart disease.
Most people are unaware of all the symptoms of a heart attack.
According to the CDC, just over a quarter of Americans know all the warning signs of a heart attack. This could explain why nearly half of those who die suddenly from heart disease do so without going to a hospital. Aside from squeezing chest pain (the most obvious symptom), important heart attack warning signs include:
- Upper body pain (chest, jaw, neck, back or upper arms)
- Pain in the abdominal area
- Shortness of breath
- A persistent cold sweat
If you have any of these symptoms but aren’t sure it’s a heart attack, err on the side of emergency medical attention. Call 9-1-1 and have an ambulance take you to the ER. Whatever you do, don’t drive yourself. If it is a heart attack, you risk delaying treatment and further injury – to yourself and others – by getting behind the wheel of a car.
Chewing an aspirin tablet could be a life saver during a heart attack.
One regular-strength aspirin tablet helps to prevent damage from a heart attack when chewed. If you feel you’re having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 and chew an aspirin while waiting for medical help to arrive. Aspirin works by thinning the blood and can reduce clotting to improve blood flow. Chewing instead of swallowing the aspirin helps it to work faster when seconds matter. Regular aspirin intake could also be beneficial for your heart, but ask a doctor before starting an aspirin regimen since it isn’t recommended for everyone. While most people know heart disease is a serious medical condition, the majority still don’t know enough about it. Research shows that lifestyle changes, such as eating better and exercising regularly, are the key to prevention. Through education and better treatment, deaths from heart disease are decreasing, but there’s a lot that we can do to boost awareness and save more lives.