The major risk factors for heart disease are smoking, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, obesity, diabetes, age, gender, and heredity (including race).
Your heart pumps blood through a network of arteries, veins, and capillaries. The moving blood pushes against the arterial walls, and this force is measured as blood pressure. High blood pressure results from the tightening of very small arteries (arterioles) that regulate the blood flow through your body. As these arterioles tighten (or constrict), your heart has to work harder to pump blood through the smaller space, and the pressure inside the vessels grows. High blood pressure is so dangerous because it often has no symptoms. High blood pressure tends to run in families. Men are at higher risk than women, and blacks are at greater risk than whites. In most cases, high blood pressure can be controlled by eating a low-fat and/or low-salt diet; losing weight, if necessary; beginning a regular exercise program; learning to manage stress; quitting smoking; and drinking alcohol in moderation, if at all. Medicines, called antihypertensives, are available if these changes do not help control your blood pressure within 3 to 6 months.
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance (lipid) found in all body cells. Your liver makes all of the cholesterol your body needs to form cell membranes and make certain hormones. Extra cholesterol enters your body when you eat foods that come from animals (meats, eggs, and dairy products). Although we often blame the cholesterol found in foods that we eat for raising blood cholesterol, the main culprit is saturated fat, which is also found in our food. So, we should limit foods high in cholesterol or saturated fat. Foods rich in saturated fat include butter fat in milk products, fat from red meat, and tropical oils such as coconut oil. Cholesterol travels to cells through the bloodstream in special carriers called lipoproteins. Two of the most important lipoproteins are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Doctors look at how LDL and HDL relate to each other and to total cholesterol. LDL particles deliver cholesterol to your cells. LDL cholesterol is often called “bad cholesterol” because high levels are thought to lead to the development of heart disease. Too much LDL in the blood causes plaque to form on artery walls, which starts a disease process called atherosclerosis. When plaque builds up in the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart, you are at greater risk for having a heart attack. HDL particles carry cholesterol from your cells back to your liver, where it can be eliminated from your body. HDL is known as “good cholesterol” because high levels are thought to lower your risk for heart disease.
Triglycerides are fats that provide energy for your muscles. Like cholesterol, they are delivered to your body’s cells by lipoproteins in the blood. If you eat foods with a lot of saturated fat or carbohydrates, you will raise your triglyceride levels. Elevated levels are thought to lead to a greater risk for heart disease, but scientists do not agree that high triglycerides alone are a risk factor for heart disease. Although triglycerides serve as a source of energy for your body, very high levels can lead to diabetes, pancreatitis, and chronic kidney disease. As triglyceride levels rise, HDL levels fall, which may help explain why people with high triglycerides appear to have an increased risk for heart disease.
Arrhythmias are irregular heartbeats caused by a disturbance in the electrical activity that paces your heartbeat. Arrhythmias cause nearly 340,000 deaths each year. Almost everyone’s heart skips a beat at one time or another. These mild, one-time palpitations are harmless. But there are more than 4.3 million Americans who have recurrent arrhythmias, and these people should be under the care of a doctor. Arrhythmias can be divided into two categories: ventricular and supraventricular. Ventricular arrhythmias happen in the heart’s two lower chambers, called the ventricles. Supraventricular arrhythmias happen in the structures above the ventricles, mainly the atria, which are the heart’s two upper chambers. Arrhythmias are further defined by the speed of the heartbeats. A very slow heart rate, called bradycardia, means the heart rate is less than 60 beats per minute. Tachycardia is a very fast heart rate, meaning the heart beats faster than 100 beats per minute.
Atrial fibrillation is a fast, irregular rhythm where single muscle fibers in your heart’s upper chambers twitch or contract. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), atrial fibrillation is a major cause of stroke, especially among older people. This irregular rhythm may cause blood to pool in the heart’s upper chambers. The pooled blood can lead to clumps of blood called blood clots. A stroke can occur if a blood clot travels from the heart and blocks a smaller artery in the brain (a cerebral artery).
A pacemaker is a surgically implanted device that helps to regulate your heartbeat. Pacemakers use batteries to produce electrical impulses that make the heart pump. The impulses flow through tiny wires (called leads) that are attached to the heart. The impulses are timed to flow at regular intervals. Most pacemakers work only when they are needed. These are called demand pacemakers. They have a sensing device that either shuts off the pacemaker if the heartbeat is above a certain rate or turns the pacemaker on when the heart is beating too slowly. Pacemaker batteries can last up to five years or longer. Pacemakers and batteries can be replaced during a minor surgical procedure.
The mitral valve regulates the flow of blood from the upper-left chamber (the left atrium) to the lower-left chamber (the left ventricle). Mitral valve prolapse (MVP) means that one or both of the valve flaps (called cusps or leaflets) are enlarged, and the flaps’ supporting muscles are too long. Instead of closing evenly, one or both of the flaps collapse or bulge into the atrium. MVP is often called click-murmur syndrome because when the valve does not close properly, it makes a clicking sound and then a murmur. MVP is one of the most common forms of valve disease. It happens more often in women and tends to run in families. Most of the time, MVP is not a serious condition. Some patients say they feel palpitations (like their hearts skip a beat) or sharp chest pain. If you have MVP, you should talk to your doctor about taking antibiotic medicine before dental procedures or general surgery, especially if you have mitral regurgitation or thickened valve leaflets. This medicine will prevent infection of the valve.
Heart failure means your heart is not pumping as well as it should to deliver oxygen-rich blood to your body’s cells. Congestive heart failure (CHF) happens when the heart’s weak pumping action causes a buildup of fluid (called congestion) in your lungs and other body tissues. CHF usually develops slowly. You may go for years without symptoms, and the symptoms tend to get worse with time. This slow onset and progression of CHF is caused by your heart’s own efforts to deal with its gradual weakening. Your heart tries to make up for this weakening by enlarging and by forcing itself to pump faster to move more blood through your body. Many therapies can help to ease the workload of your heart. Treatment options include lifestyle changes, medicines, transcatheter interventions, and surgery.
An enlarged heart means the heart is larger than normal because of heredity or disorders and diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure, and viral illnesses. Sometimes doctors do not know what makes the heart enlarge.
Carotid artery disease is a form of disease that affects the vessels leading to the head and brain (cerebrovascular disease). Like the heart, the brain’s cells need a constant supply of oxygen-rich blood. This blood supply is delivered to the brain by the 2 large carotid arteries in the front of your neck. If these arteries become clogged or blocked, you can have a stroke. Carotid artery disease is usually caused by atherosclerosis, which is a hardening and narrowing of the arteries. As we age, fat deposits, cholesterol, calcium, and other materials build up on the inner walls of the arteries. This build-up forms a wax-like substance called plaque. As the plaque builds up, the arteries become narrower, and the flow of blood through the arteries becomes slower. Lifestyle changes, medicines, transcatheter interventions, or surgery can be used to treat carotid artery disease and lower your risk of a stroke.