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A Closer Look at the Causes of Heart Disease

oatmeal and heart shaped fruit

Each year there are over 17,000,000 deaths worldwide related to heart disease. 80% of heart disease deaths are preventable. The symptoms of heart disease can sneak up on you and you may not even know you are at risk until the damage is done.

What Causes Heart Disease

Did you know that:

  • About 610,000 people will die of heart disease every year in the United States.
  • 735,000 Americans will have a heart attack each year.
  • In Canada, heart disease is the second most common cause of death.

Heart disease is generally caused by the build-up of fatty plaque in the lining of your arteries, a disease termed Atherosclerosis.  This plaque makes it more difficult for your blood to flow through your arteries to your vital organs, which causes damage to your heart and blood vessels.

It probably isn’t surprising that Atherosclerosis, and therefore heart disease, is caused by what you could call the “terrible three” lifestyle habits:

  • Unhealthy diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Smoking

Mix those habits together with a high dose of stress and you have a recipe for heart disease! The good news is that while you can’t change risk factors like age or genetics, these risk factors are all changeable.

stethascope and hearts

How to Promote Heart Health

Your heart works as a pump for your blood. A good pump must be able to work efficiently, which requires regular maintenance. Maintaining your heart keeps your blood flowing cleanly through your blood vessels.

Doctors recommend these basic “maintenance” strategies to improve the health of your heart. Check out these 5 tips to prevent heart disease.

1. Exercise

You already know that physical activity keeps us healthy, so choose to exercise regularly. Being physically active will decrease these four big risk factors for heart disease:

  • cholesterol levels
  • blood pressure
  • extra weight
  • risk of type 2 diabetes

Aim to try and get moving for two and a half hours each week. That is at least 20 minutes each day. Ideally, you will get your heart beating faster for at least 10 minutes at a time. Walking is the easiest exercise to add to your day. Swimming, dancing, cycling and weight lifting are also good choices.

Takeaway Tip: Start by adding five minutes of activity to your day. Try turning on some music and inventing a few dance moves in your living room. Or, try walking faster when you go to check your mail.

2. Quit Smoking

If you need another reason to quit smoking, do it for your heart. If you smoke, you are at a higher risk for heart disease because nicotine can make your blood vessels smaller. Also, carbon monoxide destroys the inside of the heart vessels.

Look at ways to quit smoking and reduce you and your loved one’s exposure to second-hand smoke. Exposure to second-hand smoke increases the risk of developing heart disease by 25-30 percent.

Smoking is a hard habit to break. Remember though, it is a habit and a choice. That means you DO have control over the habit! Yes, it is hard to conquer, but it is possible. Check with your doctor about programs or products that could help you quit.

Takeaway Tip: Decide why you want to quit smoking. Is it for yourself? So that you can feel better? Or so that you can play with your grandkids longer? Find out what will motivate you to quit and post a reminder where you can see it.

3. Manage Stress

Stress causes high levels of inflammation or swelling in all areas of your body. If you do not take steps to reduce and manage your stress, your arteries can become damaged. Research has shown that a highly charged emotional situation can lead to a heart attack. Coping with stress by drinking alcohol, smoking, suppressing feelings or overeating will not help. You need to recognize stress and learn good strategies for how to relieve the pressure on your body.

Try:

  • Talking to a qualified mental health provider to learn new coping strategies
  • Practicing meditation
  • Increasing physical activity
  • Learning to let go of past hurts and frustrations
  • Making an intentional practice of enjoying your relationships

Research actually suggests that practicing meditation can decrease your risk for heart attack. Life circumstances are often outside of your control. Remember that how you choose to respond to life is always in your control.

Takeaway Tip: Look at how you are currently dealing with the stressors in your life. Is there one area you want to change? Add a short and simple new habit to your day. Try to list five things you are thankful for before you get out of bed or practice 30 seconds of deep breathing when you feel your anxiety rising. Try one of these breathing techniques for heart health.

toothbrushes

4. Improve Dental Hygiene

What does good dental hygiene have to do with a healthy heart? The American Dental Association looked at how gum health affects heart health. Gum disease is caused by bacteria in the mouth. These bacteria can move into the bloodstream and increase your risk of heart disease.

The risk factors for gum disease are often the same as for heart disease. The habits you develop to keep your mouth healthy may also keep your heart healthy. Follow these habits for healthier teeth:

  • Make sure that you are brushing your teeth and gums regularly.
  • Use a soft toothbrush for loose teeth or sensitive gums.
  • Schedule regular dental appointments.
  • Use dental floss to clean between your teeth each day.
  • Eat a diet that is low in processed foods and sugar.
  • Add lots of healthy fruits, vegetables and protein to your diet.

Takeaway Tip: If you haven’t seen your dentist recently, make an appointment. Make sure that brushing and flossing your teeth is part of your daily routine.

5. Get Adequate Sleep

The Cleveland Clinic did a study of 3,000 adults over the age of 45 and found that people who slept fewer than six hours per night were more likely to have a heart attack.

A solid night of sleep helps you to wake up refreshed and ready for a new day. Sleep improves quality of life and a good night of sleep makes it easier to stick to other healthy habits as well.

The deepest stage of sleep is when your body repairs itself. During this stage your:

  • Blood pressure drops
  • Muscles become relaxed
  • Blood supply increases to your muscles
  • Tissues grow and repair themselves

All this healing is essential to your heart health. Your heart is a muscle that benefits from sleep. Feeling tired constantly is not just a part of aging. You can work with your healthcare practitioner to improve your sleep, no matter your age.

Takeaway Tip: If you have difficulty sleeping, seek medical help. Poor sleep can be connected to Alzheimer’s, an undiagnosed health condition, stress or depression. Alternative health practitioners can also help establish healthy sleep patterns. Acupuncture, naturopathic medicine, counseling and behavioral therapists are evidence-based ways to improve sleep.

green peas in a heart shape

Use Your Diet to Reduce the Risk for Heart Disease

Good nutrition fuels and primes your body for good heart health.  A diet high in unhealthy fat, salt and sugar has been shown to increase heart disease. High blood pressure hardens your arteries. Bad nutrition will slow you down and clog your arteries. High cholesterol increases the levels of plaque in your bloodstream.

There are 2 highly recommended eating plans that improve not only your heart health but also your brain health. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan and the Mediterranean Diet. There are slight differences, but the foundations are the same.

All of the best diets for heart health emphasize loading your plate with:

  • Vegetables, focusing on greens, broccoli, cabbage and carrots
  • Fruits such as apples, berries, melons and citrus
  • Whole grains
  • Foods high in protein
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Healthy fats such as nuts, seeds and avocado

With all those nutrient dense foods on your plate, you won’t have room for much more. But just in case you are still hungry, try to limit salt, sugar and alcohol.

Takeaway Tip: Choose one nutrient dense food you will add to your eating plan this week and one highly processed food you will cut back on. You can do both at once. For example, you could skip the blueberry Danish with your breakfast. Instead, try a bowlful of fresh or frozen blueberries. Or try this recipe for heart health: shrimp and pasta.

Learn to Identify the Symptoms of a Heart Attack

Recognizing the early signs of a heart attack improves the chances for recovery. You might think of the classic symptoms seen in television and movies. A character probably has sudden, extreme chest pain and falls to the ground.

In real life, the symptoms can be less dramatic and men and women can also experience heart attack symptoms differently.

plush heart help by two hands

Symptoms of a Heart Attack in Women

Women will often dismiss the signs of a heart attack. Instead of experiencing crushing pain, a woman may just feel “unwell” and like she is coming down with the flu. Women often feel uneasy, tired and nauseated. She may have difficulty catching her breath and feel dizzy.

The American Heart Association lists common heart attack symptoms for women as:

  • Chest pain that comes and goes
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain in one or both arms
  • Pain in the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Upper back pressure
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Cold sweats

In women a heart attack can feel like pressure, squeezing or a sense of fullness in the chest, back or arms.

Symptoms of a Heart Attack in Men

Heart disease is the biggest cause of death for men in the United States. The symptoms of a heart attack are different for each person. But there are common signs that let you know to seek help right away.

In men you might see:

  • Sudden, extreme chest pain
  • Feeling like your chest is tight; the feeling can come and go
  • Heartburn to the left or center of your chest
  • Pain in your upper body. Including upper stomach, shoulders, left arm, back, neck or jaw.
  • Not being able to catch your breath
  • Feeling tired and anxious
  • Breaking into a cold sweat

If you or your loved one experience the signs of a heart attack, act fast. A call to 911 can save your life.

What’s the best way to reduce your risk of heart disease? The secret is to know what you are up against. What’s your biggest risk factor? Don’t worry about the ones you can’t change. But take a minute and think about the risk factors that are most relevant to you. Then start with one small step. One new habit can make all the difference.

Resources

World Heart Federation: Key Facts
Mayo Clinic: Heart disease
Heart Healthy Lifestyle Changes
Sleep: What You Need to Know
Heart Disease and Oral Health
What Happens When You Sleep
Heart Disease Facts
Heart Attack
Quit Smoking

About The Author

Crystal Jo is a Registered Nurse who is passionate about helping older adults live happy, healthy lives at home. As a freelance writer, she enjoys educating and inspiring seniors, and those who love them, to choose a healthy life.