There are many forms of heart disease. The most common is known as atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Cholesterol joins with calcium and scar tissue and builds up in the arteries. When cholesterol levels are too high, the circulatory system becomes choked and the result is a dam of plaque that narrows the channels the blood flows through. Research has shown that hardening of the arteries is responsible for more than 90 percent of all heart attacks.
You suffer a heart attack when blood cannot bring enough oxygen to the heart muscle. This is usually caused by narrowing of the arteries leading to the heart muscle. You may get a warning sign that the heart muscle is not getting enough oxygen in the form of chest pain that moves to the left arm, jaw, or shoulder blade. This is known as angina. It usually occurs with exertion but can happen when at rest, as well. Don’t ignore it.
Another form of heart disease is Congestive heart failure. The heart muscle is weakened by high blood pressure, previous heart attack, atherosclerosis, a congenital heart defect, or a muscle disease known as cardiomyopathy.
Risk Factors You Can control
The body tries to flush the excess cholesterol away by “packaging” the cholesterol with a substance known as high-density lipoprotein, or HDL. Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, on the other hand, carries this cholesterol straight to the artery walls.
Total cholesterol is probably the number with which you are most familiar. Guidelines suggest a total cholesterol 0f less than 200 is best.
High Blood Pressure
The second leading risk factor for heart attacks and the major cause of stroke is high blood pressure, or hypertension.
Blood pressure that is below 140 (systolic) and 90 (diastolic) is considered normal—120 over 80 is considered an ideal reading. Stress, caffeine, exercise, infection, and other factors may temporarily affect blood pressure readings.
Smoking and Secondhand Smoke
Smoking increases your risk of heart attack by damaging your lungs, lowering your HDL (“good cholesterol”) level, and raising your blood pressure, The HDL cholesterol level of a two-pack-a-day smoker may increase by eight points when that person stops smoking.
In addition, smoke contains a glycoprotein that makes your blood clot more easily and weakens the blood vessel walls. Oxygen in the blood is replaced with inhaled carbon dioxide. This damages the heart muscle and makes the blood vessel walls even more susceptible to atherosclerosis.
Lack of Exercise
Regular aerobic exercise actually strenghthens the heart muscle, boosts HDL levels, lowers blood pressure, slows progression of diabetes. About 30 to 40 minutes of moderate exercise, 4 or more days a week, is recommended. It is not necessary to do all of your exercise at once. However, the exercise should increase your heart rate and keep it elevated for at least 20 minutes.
Research shows that obesity should be considered a major risk factor for heart disease, rather than one that just contributes to other risk factors such as diabetes and hypertension.
People with diabetes are very susceptible to heart disease. People with poorly controlled diabetes often have several health problems, including high cholesterol and other circulatory disorders that lead to atherosclerosis, hemorrhages of the tiny blood vessels in the eyes, and poor circulation to the feet and hands. Smoking makes these problems worse.
Uncontrollable Risk Factors
Heart disease is more common among older people because it reflects the wear- and-tear on the body; however, it does not have to be part of aging. For example, atherosclerosis may take 20 to 30 years to get to the point where the arteries are blocked enough to cause trouble and may be halted in its course if diagnosed in time for the person to make the needed changes.
Middle-aged men have more heart attacks than women of the same age. This changes after menopause. After the age of 60 the rates are almost equal.
Unfortunately, heart attacks, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol levels run in families. However, don’t use your genes as an excuse not to take the necessary steps to offset this risk. Control those risk factors you can control.