Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the US, impacting Americans of all ages and ethnicities. It is responsible for about 659,000 deaths each year in the US, which translates to one in every four deaths. One person dies from cardiovascular disease every 36 seconds.
The term “heart disease” actually refers to any condition that affects your cardiovascular system, so it is also called cardiovascular disease. Your cardiovascular system includes your heart, which is a strong muscle that pumps blood to the rest of your body, and the blood vessels that carry blood to and from the heart and throughout your body.
Recent statistics suggest that nearly half (48 percent) of the US population has some type of heart disease. The most common type, affecting about 18.2 million adults 20 and older, is coronary artery disease (CAD). It develops when the blood vessels that supply the heart – the coronary arteries – become clogged with a fatty material called plaque.
A buildup of plaque causes the coronary arteries to harden and narrow, a condition called atherosclerosis. This restricts blood flow to the heart. As a result, the heart muscle receives less oxygen and nutrients and becomes weak. Plaque accumulation can eventually block blood flow through the coronary arteries, leading to a heart attack.
Every year, more than a million Americans suffer a heart attack. Warning signs of a heart attack include pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest that lasts for more than a few minutes; pain or discomfort in your arms, neck, back or stomach; shortness of breath; weakness or lightheadedness; sweating; fatigue; and nausea. You can have a heart attack without knowing it. One in five heart attacks is silent, occurring without telltale symptoms.
Other types of heart disease include heart failure, which is the inability of your heart to pump blood efficiently; arrhythmia, which is a heartbeat that’s too fast, too slow or irregular; congenital heart defects, which are problems with your heart’s structure that are present at birth; cardiomyopathy, which causes your heart to become enlarged, thickened or stiff, affecting its ability to pump blood; and heart infections such as endocarditis and myocarditis.
Anybody can develop heart disease, but certain factors increase your risk. Some risk factors cannot be changed, such as age (heart disease is more common in people 65 and older), gender (males are at increased risk) and family history (children of parents with heart disease are more likely to develop it themselves).
Other risk factors can be modified or controlled. These include having high cholesterol, high blood pressure or diabetes;, smoking; drinking in excess; being overweight or obese; eating an unhealthy diet; having a high level of stress or anxiety; and getting little or no physical activity. About half (47 percent) of all Americans have one of these key risk factors: high cholesterol, high blood pressure and smoking.
Heart disease can lead to complications such as heart attack, heart failure, stroke and peripheral artery disease, which is the narrowing of the arteries outside of the heart often caused by atherosclerosis. An even more serious complication is sudden cardiac arrest, in which the heart suddenly stops beating. This is a medical emergency. If not treated immediately, sudden cardiac arrest can be fatal.
Certain types of heart disease, such as congenital heart defects, cannot be prevented. But there are things you can do to reduce your risk for other types of heart disease and prevent these complications:
- Eat a healthy diet that is rich in whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and low in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, salt and sugar. Limit your intake of processed food.
- Get regular physical activity, which strengthens the heart. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise a day on most days of the week.
- Quit smoking, which is the best way to reduce your risk.
- Maintain a healthy body weight. A body mass index (BMI) between 20 and 25 is ideal.
- Limit your alcohol intake to no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men. A standard drink is defined as 1½ ounces of liquor, 5 ounces of wine or one 12-ounce beer
- Manage your health conditions. Follow your doctor’s advice for keeping high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes under control. Learn to manage the stress in your life. Techniques for reducing stress include meditation, tai chi and deep breathing.