Heart disease: know the basics

Affecting both men and women, “heart disease” refers to conditions that affect the function of the heart, such as coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure and cardiac arrhythmias. Coronary artery disease is a type of heart disease that begins when plaque builds up along the walls of arteries. This buildup narrows the arteries, restricting proper blood flow. If left unchecked, heart disease increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Whether or not you have a family history of heart disease, it’s important to understand the risk factors for the condition, which include:

  • Smoking
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Obesity, especially excess fat in the central abdominal region
  • Elevated cholesterol
  • Diabetes mellitus (metabolic disorder resulting in elevated blood glucose)

Practicing a healthy lifestyle, which includes good nutrition and exercise, is a good way to help prevent heart disease. Most people should engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week. This helps control blood pressure and weight. Talk with your primary care doctor before beginning any exercise program. As for diet and nutrition, choosing the right foods, such as fruits, vegetables and lean proteins, and avoiding excessive amounts of caffeine, sugar and salt also are good ways to prevent heart disease. Additionally, adults should have periodic preventive health exams and testing so that fasting cholesterol and glucose levels, as well as blood pressure, can be checked and treated, if necessary.

While there is no one symptom that signals the onset of heart disease, there are a number of warning signs. Some of the most common include:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Unexplained pain in the back, chest, neck or arm
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Palpitations or “fluttering” in the chest
  • Indigestion, heartburn – and sometimes even nausea or loss of appetite

Although these symptoms can indicate heart disease, they also may be related to many other conditions. Generally, I recommend contacting your doctor if you have new or unusual symptoms to ensure you are properly evaluated. If your doctor suspects heart disease, he or she will likely refer you for further testing.