Heart disease, also called “cardiovascular disease,” is the leading cause of death in the United States. This broad term encompasses a wide range of cardiovascular problems: everything from coronary artery disease and arrhythmia (heart rhythm abnormalities) to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), heart infections, and congenital heart defects. When blood vessels become blocked or narrowed, heart attacks, strokes, and other complications can arise.
Although the number of deaths from heart disease in the United States dropped by 30 percent between 1998 and 2008, heart disease affects about 12 percent of Americans today. Many people won’t realize they’ve developed one of these conditions until they experience a major cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke.
Recent research has raised questions about the role of cholesterol levels in the development of heart disease. However, the American Heart Association (AHA) cites high levels of LDL cholesterol and low HDL numbers as risk factors for coronary artery disease (the buildup of plaque inside arteries).
Additional risk factors include:
- high blood pressure
- physical inactivity
- a family history of heart disease
According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), men are at higher risk than women. However, after age 55, women’s risk increases.
Preventing heart disease involves decreasing the risk factors that you can control. For example, speak with your physician about keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol in a healthy range—less than 120 systolic and 80 diastolic (often expressed as “120 over 80”). Your goal for cholesterol readings will depend on your risk factors and heart health history. If you’re at high risk of heart disease, have diabetes, or already have had a heart attack, your target levels will be below those recommended for people with low or average risk.
Those with diabetes may also be at higher risk for heart disease because high blood-glucose levels increase the risk of chest pain (angina), heart attack, stroke, and coronary artery disease. If you do have diabetes, it is absolutely essential to control your glucose so that you limit your risk for developing heart disease. People with diabetes who smoke double their risk of heart disease, so avoiding this harmful habit is crucial.
As simple as it sounds, managing stress can also lower your risk. Don’t underestimate chronic stress as a contributor to heart disease. Speak with your physician if you’re frequently overwhelmed, anxious, or have had difficulty coping with stressful life events, such as moving, changing jobs, or going through a divorce.
Avoid foods high in saturated fat and salt and exercise regularly (30 minutes a day on most days). If you smoke, stop. The nicotine in cigarettes causes blood vessels to constrict, making it harder for oxygenated blood to circulate, which can lead to atherosclerosis.
If you’ve recently been diagnosed with heart disease, speak with your healthcare provider about steps you can take to stay as healthy as possible. You can prepare for your appointment by creating a detailed list of your everyday habits: what medications you take, your regular exercise routine, your typical diet, any family history of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure or diabetes, and any symptoms you’re experiencing—even if they don’t seem related to heart problems.
Increasing how much you exercise, altering your diet, quitting smoking, and monitoring your blood pressure—while avoiding stress— all at once might not be possible. Discuss with your healthcare provider which lifestyle changes will have the biggest impact. Even small steps toward these goals will help keep you at your healthiest.
Heart disease can’t be cured or reversed and usually requires a lifetime of treatment and monitoring. Many of the symptoms of heart disease can be relieved with medications, procedures, and lifestyle changes. The lifestyle modifications used to treat heart disease—such as quitting smoking, controlling blood pressuring, exercising, maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, losing weight and eating healthily—can also improve overall health.
Written by: Robin Donovan
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD