Heart Disease 101

Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States. This post is going to provide you with an important, basic lesson: heart disease 101. It will touch on how the heart works, what heart disease is, the risk factors associated with it and tips on what we can all do to keep our hearts healthy.

In order to understand heart disease, it’s important to know how the heart works. The Mayo Clinic explains a heart muscle very simply: your heart is a pump. The heart is divided into the right and left side and has four chambers that are connected by valves. The two upper chambers are called the atria (right atrium and left atrium) and the lower chambers are the ventricles (right ventricle and left ventricle). See the diagram for clarification. The division between right and left protects oxygen-rich blood from mixing with oxygen-poor blood. The right side of your heart collects and pumps blood to the lungs. The lungs then supply new oxygen to the blood, turning it red. Next, that oxygen-rich, red blood enters the left side of the heart and is pumped through the aorta (your largest artery) to supply the rest of the body with oxygen and nutrients. If you need visuals (like me), click here to watch a video to help you follow along.  

When your heart beats, it contracts (systole) and relaxes (diastole). (Generally, I am all about simple terms but you’ll need “systole” and “diastole” when we talk about blood pressure. Bear with me). Moving on – the ventricles contract during systole, which forces blood into the vessels going to your lungs and body. When the ventricles relax (diastole, remember), blood enters the ventricles and this whole cycle starts all over. The constant exchange of oxygen-rich with oxygen-poor blood keeps us alive.

Heart disease and cardiovascular disease are often used interchangeably to basically describe the same thing: diseases of the heart and/or blood vessels. I could go on for days talking about the different types of heart disease so we’re going to stick to learning about the most common one, Coronary Heart Disease.

Your coronary arteries bring blood to your heart; they are supposed to be smooth and elastic so blood is able to flow freely through them. Coronary heart disease (also called coronary artery disease) is a narrowing of those small blood vessels. This narrowing occurs because of a buildup of plaque inside of them. Eventually, blood flow to your heart starts to slow down and can ultimately stop all together. The lack of blood flow can cause chest pain, shortness of breath or cause a heart attack. Coronary heart disease usually develops over a long period of time, which is why many people don’t realize they have it until something more serious, like a heart attack, occurs.

There are different risk factors associated with heart disease: lifestyle, health conditions and heredity. People make choices every day that put them at higher risk for heart disease – things like smoking, bad eating habits, lack of exercise and excessive alcohol use. Often times, these poor lifestyle choices lead to health conditions such as high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure.

When you have high levels of “bad” cholesterol in your body, it is deposited into your arteries making you more prone to coronary heart disease (makes sense, right?). By the way, cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance. When you have high blood pressure (hypertension), the force of blood pushing against the artery walls is higher than it should be. High blood pressure may not only cause a heart attack but it can also block arteries that supply blood and oxygen to the brain – the result of this is a stroke. A “normal” blood pressure reading is 120/80 or below (you would say “120 over 80”). The top number (systolic) measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats and the bottom number (diastolic) measures the pressure in the arteries between heartbeats. Generally speaking, people don’t have any symptoms of high blood pressure until they need emergency care. Hopefully the next time you have your blood pressure checked you will have a better understading of what your numbers mean.

Some people are pre-disposed to heart disease due to genetic factors but even so, there are many, many things we can do to help prevent heart disease.

1. Quit smoking and/or chewing tobacco

2. Lose extra pounds

3. Exercise regularly

4. Eat a healthy diet

5. Reduce salt (sodium) in your diet

6. Limit alcohol intake

7. Cut back on caffeine

8. Reduce your stress

9. Monitor blood pressure regularly at home and with your doctor

10. Get support from your family and friends

 Do not put your health on the back burner – start by incorporating some of the tips listed above and take charge of your heart today!