A Heart-to-Heart about Cardiovascular Disease

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. The term "cardiovascular disease" refers to several conditions that can affect your heart, many of which are associated with a process called atherosclerosis. When a substance called plaque builds up in the walls of the arteries, atherosclerosis develops. The arteries are narrowed due to the buildup, making it harder for blood to flow, creating a blood clot, increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. Other types of heart disease may involve the valves in the heart, or heart failure due to the heart not pumping well.

High blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking are the key risk factors for heart disease and almost half of all Americans experience at least one of these risk factors. Having diabetes, not getting enough exercise and eating an unhealthy diet can also increase your risk for having heart disease. Some risk factors cannot be controlled, such as age or family history. Steps can be taken, however, to lower your risk by changing the factors that you can control. Ask your doctor about ways to prevent or treat these medical conditions that can lead to heart disease. 

RELATED: 5 Factors that Contribute to Heart Disease and Stroke 

Symptoms will vary depending on the type of heart disease. Chest discomfort or a heart attack is the first sign for many people. Someone having a heart attack may experience several symptoms, including:

  • Chest pain or discomfort that lasts longer than a few minutes.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Pain or discomfort in the arms, shoulder, jaw, neck or back.
  • Nausea (feeling sick to your stomach).  

Several tests can be performed by your doctor to diagnose heart disease, including coronary angiograms, electrocardiograms (EKG or ECG), chest x-rays and exercise stress tests. Ask your doctors about what tests may be right for you. 

Several steps can be taken to reduce your risk of heart disease and keep yourself heart-healthy:

  • Don't smoke.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly.
  • Prevent or treat other health conditions you may have, especially high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
  • If you find yourself depressed, tell someone and get help.
  • Don't ignore symptoms that may indicate a heart attack.

Lifestyle changes, like the ones just listed, can help lower the risk of complications if you have heart disease. Sometimes, lifestyle changes alone may not be enough, your doctor may prescribe medication to treat the disease. Medical procedures or surgery are also options. The staff at the SMH Heart Center focuses and specializes on the procedural care dedicated to heart patients. Cardiology specialists also offer comprehensive care for heart disease in early detection and medical and surgical treatment, including stent placement and open-heart surgery when needed. Talk to your doctor about having regular medical checkups and the best ways to reduce your risk of heart disease.

If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, call 911.