The heart is a hardworking muscle that works as a pump to push oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to every organ, tissue, and cell of the body. It also helps remove carbon dioxide and other waste products made by the cells by moving blood to the organs of elimination, such as the kidneys and the lungs.
Although it is just the size of a fist, the heart beats at an average of 72 beats per minute (normal range is 60-100) around the clock to nourish every part of the body and maintain life. Blood vessels form the vascular component of the cardiovascular system. These consist of arteries, which carry oxygenated blood to the body, and veins that bring blood containing carbon dioxide back to the heart and the lungs,in exchange for a fresh supply of oxygen. This is an over-simplified description of cardiovascular function, but suffice it to say that a healthy heart powers the circulatory system and keeps the body alive, since it is totally dependent on a constant supply of oxygen.
The Importance of a Healthy Heart
About half a million men and women in the US die of heart disease annually. It is still the primary cause of death in the country, in spite of all efforts to educate people about heart health. In fact, heart disease kills more people in the US than cancer, lung disease, and accidents combined. Although modern technology and newer drugs have helped reduce the number of people dying from heart disease, it has not affected the number of those who develop the condition
Cardiovascular disease, or simply heart disease, encompasses any condition affecting the heart and the blood vessels. The most common condition is coronary artery disease, which occurs when the arteries (coronaries) that supply the heart muscles with oxygenated blood become narrow and stiffened. This happens due to a buildup of fat and cholesterol in their walls, which form plaques, dangerously reducing blood flow to the heart muscle. Other conditions that can compromise circulation of oxygenated blood include high blood pressure, stroke and rheumatic heart disease.
Heart disease is a chronic condition that can lead to symptoms such as weakness, shortness of breath and chest pain. It is often a progressive condition that can lead to a fatal heart attack if left untreated. The bad news is that many people are not aware that they are at great risk for developing heart disease, while others already have the disease but are not aware of it. The good news, however, is that everyone can do something to protect and improve heart health, because most types of heart disease are preventable.
- WebMD’s Heart Disease Health Center. This page provides an overview with a number of links you can use to learn more about heart disease and what you can do to prevent it.
Know Your Risk of Heart Disease
Aging takes a toll on the body’s health, and together with the natural changes that accompany the aging process, several factors can affect the ability of the heart to function well. Other than aging, there are some risk factors people cannot alter to prevent heart disease. These include certain racial and ethnic factors, a family history of developing heart disease at an early age and menopause, all of which have been found to increase one’s likelihood of developing heart problems.
Aside from these non-modifiable risk factors, there are several other risk factors that people can change or control to improve their chances of maintaining a healthy heart. These include:
- cigarette smoking
- physical inactivity
- high blood pressure (hypertension)
- high cholesterol
- diabetes (high blood sugar)
Research shows that having one or more of these risk factors can increase one’s risk of developing heart disease. Aside from these, other possible risk factors include:
- chronic stress
- moderate to heavy alcohol intake
- sleep apnea
- hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
- high dose birth control pills
More recent research has added new risk factors, which need more investigation:
- High levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in the blood, which indicates inflammation in the walls of the arteries. It also signals metabolic syndrome, which features a combination of high blood sugar, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity.
- High blood levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that may increase one’s risk for heart disease.
- High levels of Lp(a) protein, a lipoprotein that enables blood clots to form more easily in the blood vessels.
Here are some resources you can use to learn more about the risk factors involved in developing heart disease and how you can improve your heart health:
- Your Guide to a Healthy Heart. For more information on determining your risk of developing heart disease, read this PDF file from the US Department of Health and Human Services.
- Your Age-by-Age Guide to a Healthy Heart. Women’s risks of developing heart disease increase by the decade, and this article gives some guidelines on how they can protect themselves through the decades.
- Healthy Heart Guide. From the Texas heart Institute, this page summarizes the guidelines on how to manage common risk factors that lead to heart disease.
To learn more about your risk of developing heart disease, consult your doctor, who will evaluate your personal and medical history, physical findings and laboratory tests. He/she will also recommend lifestyle changes and medications, if needed, to reduce your risks and prevent or treat heart disease.
Take Action: Protect Your Heart Health
Studies show that people can dramatically reduce their risk of developing heart disease by simply following a healthy lifestyle. Basically, this entails eating a healthy, balanced diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding smoking. It is important to stick to these four basic principles, because these can also help to control other risk factors, such as high cholesterol and high blood sugar levels. However, many people need to take further action if they have other risk factors, such as using birth control pills at high doses or hormone therapy for menopause. People who have other existing medical conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure may need specific treatment to improve their condition and prevent complications such as heart disease. In such cases, these individuals should ask a doctor’s advice regarding specific measures to take to manage their health.
There is much information to learn about eating a nutritious diet, how much exercise you need or the ideal weight to maintain a healthy heart. Here are some online resources that can provide more information on these matters:
- The American Heart Association’s Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations. This page summarizes the simple, but important steps you can start taking to improve the balance between your calorie intake and exercise to burn excess calories, as well as other lifestyle changes you must undertake for a healthy heart.
- American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults. This page describes how much exercise you need to improve heart health and prevent disease.
- Keeping the Weight Off. It is not easy to keep excess pounds off your body, so here are some guidelines to maintain your ideal weight.
- Why Quit Smoking? Avoiding nicotine is an important component of heart health, and this page will inspire you to quit the habit while you still can.
- What can I do to avoid a heart attack or a stroke? This online Q&A page give some pointers on how 80% of premature heart attacks can be prevented.
DHHS. Your Guide to a Healthy Heart.
AHA. Getting Healthy.