By Dr. Nina Radcliff
Keeping our heart healthy and strong – at every age – is indeed as the American Heart Association underscores, “what we all need to take to heart.” February is designated American Heart Month, dedicated to cardiovascular health and raising awareness about heart disease.
Your heart is vitally responsible for just about everything that gives your body life. Sadly, despite dramatic advances in medical health over the past 50 years, in our nation, heart disease remains the No. 1 killer of adult women and men. . . it is our leading cause of death. Once considered a man’s disease, it is the No. 1 killer of women of every age.
The best way to look after your heart is with a healthy lifestyle. No one is immune to heart disease – but it is largely preventable. Your lifestyle choices are your best defense against heart disease and stroke – and good news, these are largely within your control. This means that the health of your heart is dependent on your many habits and two of the very important ones are how active you are and the quality of your nutrition, or what you put into your body. Your choices matter!! Making a difference starts with a commitment to live a heart-healthy life, every day. Let’s take a look at understanding heart disease – as well as prevention, to reduce your risk.
Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: About Heart Disease, Heart Attacks, Heart Failure, Sudden Cardiac Arrest – and Prevention, To Reduce Your Risks
What is heart disease?
An umbrella term for diseases that affect our heart’s blood vessels, electrical rhythm, or structure. It can include cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, heart failure, chest pain, abnormal rhythms of the heart known as arrhythmias, high blood pressure, and more.
What is cardiovascular disease?
Abnormal conditions that affect the heart’s blood vessels. Atherosclerosis is the primary culprit and describes fatty plaque buildup inside our arteries—blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood. Fatty plaques are comprised of clumps of cholesterol, fat, minerals like calcium, and other debris. Similar to rust buildup within a pipe, the plaques can cause narrowing or partial blockage of heart vessels and prevent an adequate supply of oxygen to our “ticker.” Atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease does not typically cause symptoms until it is severe or results in a heart attack.
What is a heart attack?
Death of heart cells due to insufficient blood flow–the medical term is myocardial infarction. Our heart is a highly efficient, hard-working organ that requires a large and constant supply of both oxygen and nutrients. Interruption of blood flow can impair its function or cause heart muscle death, within minutes!
Heart attacks are generally the result of cardiovascular disease—when atherosclerotic plaques rupture and cause complete arterial occlusion or blockage. Additionally, they can result, less commonly, from coronary artery spasm. Some causes of spasm include the use of drugs such as cocaine or nicotine, as well as stress, or exposure to extreme cold temperatures.
Symptoms of a myocardial infarction may include pressure or a squeezing feeling in the chest; pain that radiates down the arm, into the neck, or back; shortness of breath; lightheadedness; nausea or vomiting; or sweating.
Unfortunately, myocardial infarctions are too common. It is estimated that every year, heart attacks affect over one million Americans. Fortunately, not all heart attacks are deadly and timely medical intervention can be life-saving.
What is heart failure?
Also referred to as congestive heart failure, this condition is when our heart muscle is unable to pump blood to the body’s organs and tissues effectively or efficiently. A good comparison is that of water and a dam. In the event that too much water returns to the dam, the dam is not properly working and conducive to forward flow, or there is downstream blockage, things will go awry and water will back up.
In the human body, fluid overload is often the result of our kidneys not properly functioning and maintaining fluid balance. Our heart may not pump properly due to myocardial ischemia—the medical term for when the heart’s oxygen demand exceeds oxygen delivery. This can result from exercise or exertion, an abnormal electrical rhythm, or a growing and imposing atherosclerotic plaque. And, elevated blood pressure can create increased resistance that the heart has to pump against.
As a result, congestive heart failure can result where blood backs up into the lungs, making it difficult to breathe, as well as cause swelling in our legs and ankles, known as edema.
What is sudden cardiac arrest (SCA)?
When the heart ceases to beat/contract due to an electrical rhythm disturbance, blood flow and, hence, oxygen and nutrient delivery to the heart, lung, and brain, also cease. The person’s pulse stops, their lungs cease breathing, and they lose consciousness. This results in complete collapse. SCA can occur when the electrical rhythm is too fast, too slow, or stops. Causes include: electrolyte abnormalities, intense physical activity, blood loss, inadequate oxygen, structural abnormalities in the heart or heart valves, and genetic predisposition.
People can survive sudden cardiac arrest with immediate and effective cardiopulmonary resuscitation, known as CPR, and electrical defibrillation that resets the heart’s normal rhythm.
What can I do to prevent heart disease?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advocate that small changes can lead to a lifetime of heart health. These include:
- Consuming a balanced diet with plenty of veggies and fruit, lean meats, nuts, and healthy fats
- Decrease sodium and sugar intake
- Maintain a healthy body weight and lose weight, if necessary
- Engage in regular physical activity – not only does it help maintain a healthy body weight, but also decreases our risk for high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes (a risk factor for heart disease), and bad cholesterol levels. At the same time, it increases good cholesterol levels and insulin sensitivity.
- Quitting (or not starting) smoking. The chemicals found in cigarettes cause damage to our artery walls which provides fertile ground for atherosclerosis as well as elevates blood pressure and heart rate—both of which increase the heart’s oxygen demand
- Maintaining good, daily sleep hygiene as well as managing stress in healthy ways is also very important
- Take your prescribed medications as directed
- Seeing your doctor to discuss your heart health (including if you should take a low-dose aspirin everyday)
American Heart Month is a vital reminder for each of us to take action to help prevent heart disease – and to make smart, healthy choices daily to take care of our heart.
Your heart is a muscle and just like any other, when your muscles are strong, you are strong. In fact, your ticker is an amazing powerhouse!! Without it, human survival is next to impossible. Our heart beats 100,000 times a day (working strong while we sleep), pumping about 2,000 gallons of blood through some 60,000 miles of arteries, veins and capillaries to get your body through your marathon of to-dos. And I like what I recently read, “we know that it not only keeps us alive by pumping blood but it fuels our emotions into feelings that results in creating our reality. Whatever the emotion, it becomes felt and fueled by our magnificent organ. And to let love be the rhythm of our heart.”
Your heart deserves your best care possible – and you are the one that can give it the best! Take action every day to care for your remarkable heart – from wholesome nutrition to relief from damaging stress hormones to a good night’s sleep (at least 8 hears of sleep) to maintaining an active, vigorous lifestyle to up-to-date screenings. Studies show if you don’t take this as your responsibility you more than double your chances of heart disease. Don’t let inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle or bad habits shorten your precious life.
Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists where she serves on committees for Young Physicians and Communications. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.