Heart disease impacts millions of Americans each year. It could be a relative who has a heart attack while at work, or a weird heartbeat you notice after finishing your morning run. Heart disease comes in all shapes and sizes, and it can hit every gender, race, and nationality out there.
One of the keys to combating heart disease nationwide (even worldwide) is education. Knowing what to avoid, what to look for, and where to get help are the first steps to keeping your heart healthy for the long-term. The following guide breaks down the types, causes, and symptoms of heart disease, the healthy behaviors everyone should adopt, and how you can educate others when it comes to their tickers.
Heart Disease: Types, Causes, and Symptoms
To combat heart disease, you need to understand exactly what you’re fighting. This section addresses the types of heart disease you can develop, the causes of each condition, and the symptoms you should look for to get the treatment you need.
Facts About Heart Disease
Heart disease cost:
According to the American College of Cardiology, in 2014 to 2015, the direct care costs of heart disease in the United States was $213.8 billion. Inpatient care accounted for 46 percent of that figure. In addition, American Heart Association (AHA) statistics show that $137.5 billion of the total heart disease cost during that time was from lost productivity and mortality.
Heart attack statistics:
Per the CDC, 805,000 people in the United States have a heart attack every year, which amounts to one instance every 40 seconds. In one in five cases, the person having a heart attack is unaware of it.
Cardiac arrests among minors:
According to the AHA, approximately 7,037 people under the age of 18 have a cardiac arrest outside of a hospital setting.
Heart attack deaths by race and ethnicity:
Based on CDC statistics, the percentages of heart attack deaths vary by race and ethnicity. The following death percentages are based on 2015 data:
- American Indian or Alaska Native, 18.3 percent
- Asian American or Pacific Islander, 21.4 percent
- Black (Non-Hispanic), 23.5 percent
- White (Non-Hispanic), 23.7 percent
- Hispanic, 20.3 percent
Types of Heart Disease and Causes
Although people should be concerned about all heart disease, they should also know that there are different types that affect the body in different ways. The following outlines the specific types of heart disease.
Coronary artery disease:
The most common type of heart disease in the United States, coronary artery disease, or CAD, causes blocks in the vessels that send blood to the heart. This occurs when there is a buildup of plaque in the artery walls.
Heart attack, which is also known as myocardial infarction, occurs when oxygen, blood, and nutrients to the heart are blocked. This can cause permanent damage or death if people do not receive treatment in time.
Heart failure happens when the heart doesn’t pump enough blood throughout the body to provide the nourishment it needs. Generally, heart failure is caused by a different health condition—such as lung disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure—as well as a previous heart attack or heart defects that people are born with.
An arrhythmia is an abnormal rhythm of the heart that causes the organ to speed up, slow down, or skip beats. Sometimes arrhythmias are caused because of other heart problems, however they can also occur spontaneously.
Angina, which can be caused by artery muscle spasms or narrow arteries, prevents the heart from getting the nutrients and oxygen it needs. People may experience angina after smoking cigarettes or getting exposed to extremely cold weather.
6 Risk Factors for Heart Disease?
In some cases, people can prevent heart disease by making lifestyle changes. In other cases, heart disease is caused by factors beyond people’s control. Either way, it’s important to be aware of the risk factors, which include the following:
Smoking can significantly increase the risk of developing heart disease, as well as the chances of dying from a heart attack.
Family history of heart disease
People who have parents that have heart disease are more likely to develop the condition than those who don’t, but they can help mitigate this by living a healthy lifestyle.
When diabetes is not managed through healthy diet, exercise, and medication, people increase the risk of causing damage to their heart.
A sedentary lifestyle
Moderately exercising every day can go a long way toward preventing heart disease. Generally, people should do aerobic exercise that involves large muscle groups for at least 30 minutes daily.
High blood pressure
Uncontrolled high blood pressure can cause damage to the body’s organs, such as the heart, brain, and kidneys.
Excess weight can add an extra strain on the heart that can cause or exacerbate heart disease. In addition, it can increase other health problems linked to heart disease, like diabetes.
Symptoms of Heart Disease
Being aware of the symptoms of heart disease is imperative in order to get timely treatment. The following are some of the symptoms that you should be on the lookout for:
- Tightness, pressure, and pain in the chest
- Increased or irregular heartbeat
- Swollen feet, ankles, and legs
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling faint
- Persistent dry cough
Those who are experiencing these symptoms should contact their healthcare provider in order to be screened for heart disease. In addition, anyone who suspects they are having a heart attack should immediately call 911 and get emergency assistance.
How Are Patients Diagnosed with Heart Disease?
Taking medical tests can be a nerve-wracking experience, but the more information you have about the tests they’re taking, the more you can alleviate the feelings of stress and anxiety. This section discusses the types of diagnostic tests that are done to detect heart disease and how they are performed.
This test, also known as an EKG, is designed to monitor the electrical activity in the heart.
A Holter monitor is a portable device that people wear for about 24 to 72 hours in order to test heart abnormalities, such as irregular heartbeats and arrhythmias.
During stress tests, people’s reaction to an increased heart rate is monitored as they engage in rigorous exercise, such as using a stationary bike or running on a treadmill.
An echocardiogram, or echo, uses sounds waves in order to create a detailed image of the heart’s structure, which allows doctors to detect any abnormalities.
Chest x-rays are used to produce images of the heart, so doctors can determine the cause of a patient’s chest pains or shortness of breath.
When doctors administer blood tests, they are checking the levels of proteins, cholesterol, and fats in the body.
Treating and Fighting Heart Disease
Learning about heart disease is just the first step to taking control of your health. And while some information may seem straightforward, a lot of myths and misconceptions when it comes to heart health.
Heart Disease Myths and Misconceptions
|A cardiac arrest is the same thing as a heart attack.
||A heart attack and a cardiac arrest are different. When someone has a heart attack, it means that there is a blockage in a coronary artery that prevents blood to flow to the heart. On the other hand, a cardiac arrest occurs when a person’s heart doesn’t pump blood to the body and they become unconscious.
|People who don’t have parents with heart disease don’t have to worry about it.
||Although having parents with heart disease can increase the likelihood of getting it, anyone can develop the condition.
|Chest pains are the only symptom of having a heart attack.
||Chest pain is one of the major indicators of a heart attack, but sometimes people have more subtle symptoms, including shortness of breath, lightheadedness, nausea, and pain in the arms, neck, back and jaw.
|Eating certain foods will completely prevent heart disease.
||Although certain foods, such as blueberries, fish, pomegranates and walnuts, can have benefits for the heart, no one food will prevent heart disease.
|Men are more likely to get heart disease than women.
||Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death among both men and women. In fact, according to Harvard Health, by the time people reach 65 years of age, 70 percent of men and women have some kind of cardiovascular disease.
Healthy Behaviors: Avoiding & Fighting Back After Heart Disease
|Avoiding Heart Disease
||Fighting Back After Heart Disease
|Smoking cessationWhen people quit smoking, it can reduce their chances of having a heart attack, as well as make the recovery from a heart attack smoother.
||Understand the diagnosisThe first step in fighting back against heart disease is understanding it. Patients should ask questions about what caused the heart disease and what treatment plans are right for them in order to get as much information as possible.
|Control blood pressure&In order to lower the chances of having heart disease, people should maintain healthy blood pressure, which may be done through lifestyle measures or medication.
||Lose weightMaintaining a healthy weight can help improve heart health, as well as prevent other conditions like diabetes.
|Get regular exerciseGetting regular exercise can help improve circulation, strengthen the heart, lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and help people lose weight—all of which can help prevent heart disease.
||Change diet Since the foods people eat can impact the flow of blood in the body, it’s important for those with heart disease to avoid saturated and trans fats, which can build up in the arteries and lead to heart failure or a heart attack. Eating more fruits, vegetables, fish, and red meat are good choices to help people living with heart disease.
|Maintain a healthy dietEating a lot of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while limiting saturated fats and foods high in sodium and added sugars, can help people keep their blood pressure and cholesterol under control.
||Get exerciseCardio exercises, like walking, swimming, jogging and bicycling, can help strengthen the heart muscles, as well as relieve stress.
|Manage stressKeeping stress levels low is important because extreme stress can not only cause heart disease, in some cases it can even trigger a heart attack.
||Joining support groupsGetting a heart disease diagnosis can be stressful—and that stress can exacerbate the problem. In order to alleviate this, it may be helpful to join a group of people who are living with the same health issues that can provide tips, offer emotional support, and share experiences.
While the tips above can be helpful, it’s important for people to consult their doctor before they begin any regimen, especially if it involves a diet and fitness plan.
Medical Treatment of Heart Disease
Although lifestyle changes can go a long way toward managing heart disease, in some cases, people need to take medications or undergo surgical procedures. The following are some medicinal and surgical interventions that may be used for heart disease patients.
Angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
ACE inhibitors dilate the blood vessels in order to lower blood pressure, while increasing the blood flow to the heart.
This medication decreases the heart rate of people with congested heart failure, so their blood pressure will lower and their heart will beat less forcefully.
Diuretics, or water pills, make it easier for the heart to work by helping the body expel excess water and salt.
Generally used as an alternative to ACE inhibitors, vasodilators are designed to make it easier for the blood to flow through the body by relaxing blood vessels.
Calcium channel blockers
Calcium channel blockers relax the blood vessels, which allows more blood and oxygen to flow to the heart of patients who have high blood pressure or chest pains.
During an angioplasty procedure, doctors place a balloon catheter inside a blood vessel in order to widen it and increase blood flow to the heart.
Coronary artery bypass surgery
This type of surgery, which is performed on people who have blocked arteries, increases blood flow to the heart.
This electronic device is designed to help people with an arrhythmia regulate their heartbeat.
Careers & Degrees in Heart Care
Earning an allied healthcare degree can prepare students to take many career paths after they graduate, including working with patients who have been diagnosed with heart disease. The following is a sample of the types of careers graduates can pursue to help heart disease patients.
Medical billing and coding professionals have expertise in the billing codes for all medical procedures and diagnoses, which they use to work through insurance company requirements and protocols to ensure proper payment. When these professionals work in coronary care, they should be well-versed in billing and coding for heart patients because these treatments can be costly and properly billing insurance for them is crucial to delivering patient care.
The daily duties of registered nurses include reviewing patients’ medical histories and symptoms, providing treatment and medications, and working closely with doctors to create and implement treatment plans. When these professionals specialize in cardiac care, they need to build on their existing skills because they’re also required to perform vascular and cardiac monitoring, as well as stress tests; provide care to those who have undergone bypass surgeries or had pacemakers implanted; and work with a team of cardiac experts to determine the best medications and other interventions patients should receive.
Radiologic technologists perform diagnostic tests on patients, as well as maintain equipment and educate people on the procedures that are being performed. When it comes to cardiac care, these professionals perform tests designed to create detailed images of the heart and arteries, which helps doctors find irregularities.
Home health aides assist their clients with personal care by helping them bathe, get dressed, and keep up with their hygiene. In addition, these workers may assist with housecleaning, transportation to doctor’s appointments, and grocery shopping. When they work specifically with those getting treatment for heart disease, they need to become aware of the different types of heart disease and their treatments in order to provide the most effective care.
Surgical technologists assist a surgical team by doing tasks such as sterilizing equipment, preparing operating rooms before a procedure, and disinfecting incision sites before a surgery. When they specialize in cardiac treatments, surgical technologists may be required to assist with performing EKG tests, implanting cardiac catheters, or evaluating the blood flow of patients in order to identify abnormalities.
Advice from an Expert
Lynell Ross is a Certified Health and Wellness Coach through Wellcoaches, a psychology-based coaching program; a nutritionist; a Certified Personal Trainer with the American Council on Exercise; and a National Diabetes Prevention Program Instructor. Lynell founded Zivadream, an education advocacy website dedicated to helping people improve their lives. The Zivadream team is composed of experienced professionals with a passion for helping others, to improve the world by providing guidance so they may achieve their personal, educational, and professional dreams.
Omaida Bichara is a board-certified Adult Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner. She is an adjunct faculty member at Barry University in the Acute Care Nurse Practitioner program. She also works at a local hospital as a nurse practitioner in the division of cardiology, serving the adult population community. Prior to cardiology, she worked in critical care medicine.
Ms. Bichara completed her bachelor and master of science in nursing at Barry University, and will be completing her doctorate in nursing practice in December 2020. Ms. Bichara is married with two children and resides in Miami, Florida. She enjoys helping with animal rescues, traveling, painting and gardening.
Ross: They should educate themselves all about heart disease in addition to listening to their doctor’s advice, presuming they are seeing a cardiologist. Diet, exercise, and managing stress are key to managing heart disease.
Bichara: The first thing a patient with a heart disease diagnosis should do is become an advocate for his or her own health. It is vital to learn as much as you can and play an active role in the plan of action. Patients should stay calm and know that heart disease is not a death sentence. It does mean though that it is time for lifestyle modifications.
Bichara: Heart disease is the result of a combination of both genetic and lifestyle factors. However, poor health behaviors will double your chances of developing heart disease. Contributing factors include things like smoking, excessive alcohol use, a sedentary lifestyle or eating a diet high in fat and cholesterol.
Ross: Heart disease can be caused by genetic factors as well as lifestyle, it depends on the individual. In my case, I found out I had high cholesterol when I was 26 years old, very thin, a runner and ate a largely vegetarian diet. My grandparents had passed away from heart disease related issues, but we didn’t know about the genetic link in our family until later, when my mother died of a heart attack at age 62.
After that, I began to study everything I could about heart disease, studied nutrition and became a health and wellness coach so that I could protect myself and my family. I learned that 90 percent of all chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers can be prevented by making healthy lifestyle choices.
Controllable risk factors for heart disease include: smoking, high LDL or low HDL cholesterol, physical inactivity, obesity, uncontrolled diabetes, high C-reactive protein and uncontrolled stress, depression, and anger.
Ross: Yes. Dr. Dean Ornish, a cardiologist, is a pioneer in the field of heart health and has shown proven results for reversing heart disease by following specific lifestyle changes. For more than four decades he has conducted a series of randomized controlled trials and demonstration projects proving that lifestyle changes can often reverse the progression of heart disease. In his research and studies, he has proven that much of the damage of aging at a cellular level can be slowed, stopped or even reverse severe coronary heart disease, reverse type 2 diabetes, reverse elevated cholesterol levels, reverse obesity, reverse autoimmune conditions, and combat depression and anxiety.
I am also a National Diabetes Prevention Program Instructor and have seen firsthand how patients have lowered their cholesterol, lowered blood pressure, corrected their blood sugars, lost weight and gotten off most or all medication simply by changing their diet, walking and managing stress with behavioral therapy group support and by following the Diabetes Prevention Program protocols.
Bichara: Absolutely! Making changes to your eating habits by reducing salt intake, sugars and processed foods, exercising, losing weight, and quitting smoking are just some of the main lifestyle changes that can help reverse heart disease or slow its progression.
Bichara: Knowledge is key. It is important to be an informed patient and understand your disease, including what causes it, how is it diagnosed, and the reasons behind your treatment plan. Patients should write down questions in advance of appointments and ask their providers for any additional information or videos so they can be as informed as possible. Be sure to understand the changes you have the power to put into action to improve your health.
Ross: Patients should listen to their doctor’s advice, but doctors and cardiologists do not always have the time or information to teach you how to take care of yourself. Gather all the information you can. Keep a file with all your information, numbers, and a timeline so you can be fully educated on your condition.
Ross: People that have suffered a heart attack or stroke, or even received a diagnosis of heart disease can become depressed and fearful. This isn’t always the case, but our fearful thoughts can run away with us if we don’t talk to someone we can trust.
Bichara: Being sick or not feeling well can, quite frankly, be scary. Patients may feel defeated and depressed by not being able to do some of the things they once did. This can impact your social and professional life, as well as personal relationships. It is important to recognize if a diagnosis is having an emotional impact and discuss it with your doctor as well.
Ross: This is why I always say: You should be your own healthcare advocate. Many patients do not want to follow the advice of eating right, exercising or making lifestyle changes, so doctors, in addition to having very little time to spend with you, don’t assume you want to make lifestyle changes. You must learn everything you can about heart health and living a healthy lifestyle so you can make educated decisions and take control of your health. Getting support in making these changes will help you make positive changes to your health. Have a team of positive people who are on your side, from your cardiologist to family, friends, and support groups.
Bichara: If, at any anytime, you disagree with your doctor on your treatment plan, be sure to express this to your provider and elaborate on your concerns, struggles, and feelings. We have the same goal of improving your health, and it is important for patients and providers to work as a team.
Ross: Depending on your circumstance or condition, and following your doctor’s recommendation, you should be able to live a full life. Slowing down can be a good thing. Learning to appreciate the little things in life and live in the present moment. If your heart disease isn’t caused by a hereditary or genetic condition, then it could be caused by poor eating habits, smoking, sedentary living, or living with chronic stress. Many times it takes a catastrophic event, such as a heart attack or stroke, to make us change our ways. Facing a difficult diagnosis can help us remember how precious life is and motivate us to take better care of ourselves by quitting smoking, walking, eating better, getting more sleep, developing better relationships, managing stress, and making better choices. Even with a diagnosis of heart disease you can be aware of your purpose in life, be of service to others and maintain a spiritual connection, all of which will help you to thrive.
Bichara: A full life is possible with heart disease. Be sure to understand your disease, make the recommended lifestyle modifications, and work with your provider to learn coping mechanisms for any emotional effects. If you implement the recommended changes, you may find an even fuller life than before your diagnosis.
Bichara: Patients should understand that they are not alone, and that heart disease is a very common diagnosis. I recommend joining a support group, identifying someone close to you who you feel comfortable sharing your feelings with, or even teaming up with a buddy who is going through the same struggle to encourage each other as you make lifestyle modifications.
Ross: The best way to cope with these fears and combat depression is to get support from your doctor, a support group at your hospital, church, a therapist or therapy group, or hiring a health and wellness coach. Taking action helps alleviate anxiety and worry. The best antidote to fear is having a positive attitude and doing the things you need to for your self-care.
Ross: Your heart is the most important organ in your body. It is your command center that gives you life. Taking care of your heart means feeding your body excellent nutrition from wholesome foods, exercising daily, and managing stress. I believe that those of us living with heart disease have been given a gift of seeing life with greater vision, being grateful for what we have, and remaining aware of how precious life is.
Bichara: It is important to recognize that heart disease is largely preventable and greatly modifiable. Each of us is the driver of our own health. We need to take the wheel and practice a healthy lifestyle.
The Student Counseling Center is often a good place to start for a student. The staff has good relationships with personnel on the academic side of the institution, like student deans, and can sometimes facilitate taking a leave of absence or a modified schedule/accommodations to support a student through their treatment.
Blood tests for heart disease:
This page on the Mayo Clinic’s website gives a detailed explanation on how blood testing is used to diagnose heart disease.
Exercise and Cardiovascular Health:
The American Heart Association discusses the importance of exercise for heart health in this article.
Getting heart healthy: The missing ingredient:
In this TEDx Talk, cardiologist James Beckerman discusses his experience working with heart disease patients.
This page on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website provides various resources about heart disease.
Heart Disease and Depression:
In this podcast from Johns Hopkins Medicine, cardiologist Roy Ziegelstein talks about the relationship between heart disease and depression.
Heart disease resources:
The Office on Women’s Health, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides information how heart disease impacts women on this page.
Heart-healthy diet: 8 steps to prevent heart disease:
The Mayo Clinic offers tips on heart disease prevention on this website.
In Brief: Your Guide To Living Well With Heart Disease:
This report from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has an overview of heart disease and its treatments.
‘State Of The Heart’ Cardiologist Assesses Breakthroughs In Heart Health:
In this NPR podcast, advancements in heart disease treatment are discussed.
What You Should Do After a Heart Attack:
In this article, WebMD explores how patients should move forward after suffering from a heart attack.