Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease claims more lives each year in the United States than all forms of cancer and Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease (CLRD) combined.
As people age, so do their heart and blood vessels. This normal wear and tear, in addition to comorbid medical conditions and lower physical activity, puts older adults at an increased risk for heart problems.
This article will define heart disease, how it‘s diagnosed, its causes, risk factors, and ways to prevent it from happening to your loved one.
Heart disease, also known as cardiovascular disease, is a group of different conditions that affect the normal function in one or more parts of the heart and blood vessels.
Heart disease is associated with plaque formation in artery walls, increased risk of blood clots, and damage to blood vessels in organs other than the heart, such as the kidneys, brain, and eyes.
The four most common types of heart disease to be aware of are:
Coronary Artery Disease
Coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease and affects the major arteries in the heart.
Heart Rhythm Disorders, or Arrhythmias
Heart rhythm disorder or arrhythmia is a condition where the heart beats too quickly, too slowly, or in an irregular pattern.
Structural Heart Disease
Structural heart disease refers to any abnormality in the heart’s structure, including the walls, valves, blood vessels, and muscles. Structural heart disease can be congenital (develops before birth) or acquired (develops after birth through infection or as the person ages).
Heart failure is the inability of the heart to pump blood effectively.
Since there are several types of heart disease, the cause depends on the type of disease they have. Here are some causes of different types of heart disease:
Coronary artery disease is caused by plaque buildup in the artery walls that supply blood to the heart. Plaque is made up of cholesterol, fat, calcium, and other substances.
Over time, the buildup of plaque leads to partial blockage in the arteries, decreasing blood flow. This process is called atherosclerosis and may cause symptoms like chest pain (angina) and shortness of breath. Sometimes, plaque ruptures and leads to life-threatening complications such as heart attacks and sudden cardiac arrest.
Heart rhythm disorders are often the result of other heart conditions, but may also happen on their own. Some of the most common causes of arrhythmias include:
An inherited genetic condition that affects how the body recycles low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, leading to very high levels in the blood. LDL is also known as bad cholesterol, and if left untreated, raises a person’s chance of developing atherosclerosis and heart attacks even at a young age.
Familial Valvular Heart Disease
An inherited genetic condition characterized by an abnormal heart valve. An example of this heart defect is bicuspid aortic valve disease (BAV), where the aortic valve of the heart only has two flaps instead of the usual three flaps.
Familial Dilated Cardiomyopathy
An inherited genetic condition that causes the heart chambers to stretch and weaken, making it harder for the heart to pump blood.
A rare genetic condition that causes abnormal heart rhythm. Brugada syndrome can lead to sudden death, especially during sleep or rest. People with this genetic disorder require frequent medical monitoring since certain medications and electrolyte imbalances may trigger Brugada syndrome.
A rare genetic condition that affects the connective tissue of the heart and blood vessels, as well as the lungs, eyes, and skeleton. Patients with this syndrome can often have an enlarged aorta, which increases their risk of heart failure and other heart diseases.
Long QT Syndrome
An inherited genetic condition characterized by an abnormal heart electrical system, leading to a life-threatening arrhythmia called torsades de pointes, which may lead to sudden death. Illegal drug use can also trigger long QT syndrome.
The most common causes of acquired heart infections are bacteria, parasites, viruses, and chemicals.
Examples of acquired heart diseases include:
Here is a list of heart disease risk factors that are divided into modifiable (can be controlled) and non-modifiable (cannot be controlled) factors:
Smoking has many adverse effects on the body, including the heart and blood vessels. The nicotine and carbon monoxide in cigarettes can cause permanent damage to blood vessels, increasing their chance of atherosclerosis and heart attacks.
Excessive alcohol use
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can increase the risk of high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy, and heart failure.
If your loved one is not physically active, they are at an increased risk of heart disease.
Stress can lead to high blood pressure, which can raise your loved one’s risk of heart attacks and other heart conditions.
Poor food choices
A diet high in saturated fats, cholesterol, trans fat, and salt may lead to heart disease.
Being obese or overweight changes the body’s composition and heart structure, which may lead to coronary heart disease and heart failure.
Adults 65 years and older have a higher risk of heart disease. As people get older, their blood vessels and heart muscle get weaker.
Heart disease is common in both men and women. However, men tend to develop heart disease at a younger age, whereas the risk for women increases after menopause.
If your loved one’s parent or sibling has a history of heart disease, especially before the age of 55 for males, and 65 for females, has a high chance of developing heart disease.
Heart disease is more common in African Americans than in any other racial group.
Diagnosis of heart and vascular diseases involves a combination of tools and tests. The initial step of evaluating your loved one for heart and vascular diseases usually involves a physical exam and taking personal and family health history into account.
Healthcare providers will then order some tests to confirm a diagnosis. These tests include:
While not all types of heart disease are preventable, here are some proven ways to reduce your loved one’s risk of heart disease:
Suraya Hammoudeh, PharmD, specializes in helping people learn more about health conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. She enjoys using her writing skills to communicate complex health and medical topics to different audiences. Suraya received her Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine-School of Pharmacy and her Bachelor of Science Degree from the University of Michigan, where she graduated with high distinction.
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