Heart disease is the leading cause of death among men and women
in the United States, accounting for about 600,000 fatalities a
It refers to several types of conditions, including heart
failure, arrhythmia and heart valve abnormalities. But more than
half of all heart disease is related to the accumulation of
cholesterol-laden plaque in the arterial walls - a condition more
specifically defined as coronary artery disease or coronary
atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
This is the type of heart disease over which we have the most
control with some of our lifestyle choices.
In coronary artery disease, the build-up of plaque narrows the
arteries and impedes blood flow. If plaque becomes unstable and
ruptures, it further narrows the arteries and may cause a heart
attack or stroke.
Most people survive their first heart attack, but may have
significant heart damage. This can result in the development of
heart failure, in which the heart's pumping function is impaired
resulting in the accumulation of fluid in the lungs. In order to
minimize heart damage, it is important to recognize the warning
signs of a heart attack so intervention can begin as soon as
possible. The sooner we intervene, the more lives - and heart
muscle - we can save.
Heart attacks may start with mild pain or discomfort. A heart
attack may not be a sudden, intense event. In some cases, there are
no warning signs. If you think you are having a heart attack, call
9-1-1. The worst thing you can do is to ignore the symptoms. You
should be especially on guard if you have risk factors such as
family history of heart disease, high cholesterol levels, high
blood pressure, diabetes and smoke tobacco.
More than 715,000 Americans have a heart attack every year,
according to the Centers for Disease Control. Symptoms include the
- Chest discomfort that often feels like pressure, squeezing,
fullness and pain; it can last for minutes and may worsen
with walking and improve with resting;
- Discomfort in other areas of the body - in one or both arms,
back, neck, jaw or stomach;
- Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort, and;
- A cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
The heart disease risk factors are the same for men and women,
but in recent years we've learned that women often present with
symptoms differently than men. More women appear to experience
blockages without the crushing chest pressure. Instead, they
express other symptoms such as shortness of breath; pressure or
pain in the lower back, chest or upper abdomen; dizziness,
lightheadedness or fainting; and upper back pressure or extreme
In general, the signs are more subtle and confusing in women,
but they should not be dismissed as the flu or indigestion. Heart
disease is the No. 1 killer among women, even though many continue
to view it primarily as a male disease.
Early detection of coronary artery disease in men and women can
reduce its potentially fatal effects and enhance the long-term
success of treatment.
We have a variety of treatments for coronary artery disease
including lifestyle changes, medications and procedures to clear or
bypass blockages. But the best treatment is prevention. It should
focus on living a healthy lifestyle and managing conditions such as
high blood pressure and diabetes that can place undue stress on the
Prevention strategies include the following:
- Don't smoke or use nicotine;
- Get regular exercise, at least 30 minutes a day;
- Eat a heart healthy diet, including less saturated fat and more
fruits and vegetables;
- Maintain a healthy weight; and;
- Receive regular screenings for cholesterol levels, high blood
pressure and other heart disease risk factors.
By: David Nicholson, DO, a cardiologist who practices at
OhioHealth Grady Memorial Hospital