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Heart Disease: Causes, Risk Factors, and Preventive Tips

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Top Takeaways:

    • Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States.  
    • There are different types of heart disease your loved one can have.
    • Many types of heart disease are preventable and treatable with medications, heart surgery and stents, and healthy lifestyle changes.
    • There are different causes of heart disease depending on the specific type your loved one has.
    • Your loved one’s heart health is crucial to consider since older adults are more likely to suffer from heart disease than younger adults.
    • The main risk factors for heart disease to be aware of for your loved one include:

      • Smoking
      • High blood pressure
      • High cholesterol
      • Diabetes
      • Family history of heart disease
      • Infections
      • Obesity
      • Physical inactivity
      • Unhealthy diet

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.

What is Heart Disease?

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
    Heart failure is the inability of the heart to pump blood effectively. 


What Are The Causes Of Heart Disease?

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

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, or Arrhythmias

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:

    • Previous heart attack
    • Congenital heart disease
    • Coronary artery disease
    • Heart valve disorders, such as aortic valve stenosis or mitral valve regurgitation
    • Viral infections
    • High blood pressure
    • Diabetes
    • Tobacco use
    • Alcohol use
    • Illegal drug use
    • Excessive caffeine use
    • High stress and anxiety
    • Excessive exercise
    • Some medications and supplements. 

Structural Heart Disease

Congenital heart disorders: These heart defects that occur while the baby is still in the womb. While some congenital heart disorders run in families, the exact cause of these disorders is not known. 

Congenital heart disorders include: 

    • Familial Hypercholesterolemia
      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.

    • Brugada Syndrome
      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.   

    • Marfan 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. 

Heart Failure

    • The most common cause of heart failure is cardiomyopathy. 
      • Cardiomyopathy is a condition that affects the heart muscle and makes it harder for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body. Cardiomyopathy can be inherited or acquired.
    • Other common causes of heart failure include untreated coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, thyroid disease, viral hepatitis, and arrhythmias.

Acquired Heart Disorders 

The most common causes of acquired heart infections are bacteria, parasites, viruses, and chemicals.

Examples of acquired heart diseases include:

    • Endocarditis (infection of the heart’s inner lining) 
    • Myocarditis (infection of the heart’s muscle)

What Are The Risk Factors Of Heart Disease? 

Here is a list of heart disease risk factors that are divided into modifiable (can be controlled) and non-modifiable (cannot be controlled) factors:

Modifiable Risk Factors (Can Be Controlled)

    • Smoking
      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. 

    • Physical inactivity
      If your loved one is not physically active, they are at an increased risk of heart disease.

    • Stress
      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.

    • Obesity
      Being obese or overweight changes the body’s composition and heart structure, which may lead to coronary heart disease and heart failure. 

    • Poor dental hygiene
      If your loved one does not brush their teeth, floss, and go to regular dental checkups, they have an increased risk of bacterial infections in the blood that may affect heart valves and lead to heart disease.  
    • High blood pressure (hypertension)
      Uncontrolled high blood pressure can damage arteries and make it harder for blood and oxygen to reach the heart, leading to heart disease. 
    • Diabetes
      Uncontrolled high blood sugar can damage blood vessels and the nerves that control the heart, leading to heart disease. In fact, according to The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, people with diabetes are twice as likely to have heart disease than people without diabetes.    
    • High blood cholesterol
      Having high cholesterol levels in the blood leads to the buildup of plaque in the walls of blood vessels, which may lead to atherosclerosis and other heart conditions. Ensuring that your loved one is properly taking medications, such as statins, can lower the risk of heart disease.

Non-Modifiable Risk Factors (Cannot Be Controlled)

    • Age
      Adults 65 years and older have a higher risk of heart disease. As people get older, their blood vessels and heart muscle get weaker. 

    • Gender
      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. 

    • Family history
      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.

    • Ethnicity
      Heart disease is more common in African Americans than in any other racial group. 

How is Heart Disease Diagnosed? 

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:

  • Blood tests 
  • Stress tests 
  • Electrocardiograms 
  • Echocardiograms 
  • Cardiac catheterization

How To Help Your Loved One Prevent Heart Disease

While not all types of heart disease are preventable, here are some proven ways to reduce your loved one’s risk of heart disease:

    • Exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation
      • This program can help patients who suffered from heart attacks, were diagnosed with heart failure, or had undergone open-heart surgery. Cardiac rehab can help strengthen heart rate recovery and improve overall health.
  • Reduce and manage their stress. 
  • Encourage them to stop smoking. 
  • Help them stop using illicit drugs.
  • Help stop drinking alcohol or drink in moderation.
  • Keep them active by encouraging regular exercise.
  • Help them eat a heart-healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight.
    • Remind them to Take medications
      • This includes prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and supplements, as directed by a healthcare professional or pharmacist. 
    • Learn to recognize the warning signs of medical emergencies related to heart disease, such as heart attacks so you can act quickly if your loved one is in danger. 
  • Encourage your loved one to het regular checkups.


Suraya Hammoudeh

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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