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Heart disease is considered an umbrella term; it relates to a number of different conditions that affect the cardiovascular system. These various types of heart disease are common among North Americans, and are the number one killer for both men and women. Yet, it is largely preventable; the lifestyle choices you make today will impact your overall health, for better or for worse. Precursors for heart disease, such as hypertension and high cholesterol, in themselves do not display symptoms, so it is all-important to get regular physical check-ups. Depression plays another major factor in heart diseases, so maintaining balanced psychological health is just as significant to preventing these diseases as is regular exercise and eating well. Remember, it’s your life.
Diseases of the Heart:
Heart disease is a broad term that is used to collectively describe all the diseases that affect the cardiovascular system—in other words, disorders that affect the heart and the blood vessels throughout the body. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in Canada and the United States.
The heart is a muscular organ that continuously pumps blood through the circulatory system; it beats on average 100,000 times per day, pumping about 5 quarts of blood every minute. The circulatory system is a network of blood vessels—such as arteries, veins, and capillaries—that are threaded throughout the body. The heart performs a vital task to sustain life; the blood carries with it fresh oxygen from the lungs and nutrients to bodily tissues, while at the same rate removing waste, like carbon dioxide, away from the tissues.
The Blood Vessels:
There are three basic types of blood vessels. Arteries are muscular blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood away from the heart; capillaries are the tiny vessels located within the body’s tissue, responsible for transporting arterial blood to the veins; the veins then carry the blood, which lacks oxygen and nutrients, back to the heart. This network is so vast that, if stretched out, the length of blood vessels would measure over 60,000 miles long.
Types of Heart Disease:
Now that we have described how the cardiovascular system functions when it is healthy, we may move toward understanding the different types of heart disease. There are dozens of different conditions that can stem from heart disease; below is a list of the most prevalent forms.
Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) is the most prevalent type, and is the leading cause of heart attacks. It occurs when arteries become hardened and narrowed due to a build up of plaque on its inner walls, a condition known as atherosclerosis. Plaque is usually composed of fat and cholesterol.
As more plaque accumulates, the heart is unable to receive the oxygen it needs to properly function. While CAD is specific to diseases of the coronary arteries, Coronary Heart Disease denotes these, as well as their resulting complications. When blood flow is reduced or completely blocked, the heart muscle is weakened, causing angina (chest pain), heart attacks, heart failure, and arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats).
Congenital Heart Disease denotes problems with the structure and functioning of the heart, which develops before birth. Shortly after conception, the baby’s heart begins to develop, and it is at this time that structural defects may occur. These problems include heart valve defects, atrial and ventricular septal defects (holes in the heart), and heart muscle abnormalities that can lead to heart failure.
Cardiomyopathy is a term used to describe all the diseases that affect the heart muscle. There are three major types: Dilated cardiomyopathy occurs when the heart’s main pumping chamber is enlarged and weakened, causing less blood to be pumped out to the body per heartbeat; Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a thickening of the heart muscle, leading to a stiffening of the walls of the heart and abnormalities in heart valve function; Restrictive cardiomyopathy happens when the lower chambers of the heart are rigid and are unable to fill with blood.
Valvular Heart Disease denotes all the diseases of the heart valves. The heart valves are located at each of the four heart chambers, ensuring blood flows through the heart in one direction. There are several types of valvular heart disease, and the most common conditions cause narrowing, leaking, or improper closing of the valve.
Pericardial Disease is an inflammation, stiffness, or fluid accumulation that occurs in any of the layers of the sac (the pericardium) that surrounds the heart.
Rheumatic Heart Disease is a weakening of the heart valves caused by rheumatic fever.
Vascular Disease is any condition that affects the circulatory system.
Causes & Prevention:
There are several lifestyle choices you can make in order to prevent these forms of heart disease.
Cholesterol Intake—Cholesterol is naturally produced by the liver. It helps the body to form new cells, to insulate nerves, and to produce hormones. Too much cholesterol in your diet (foods laden with milk, eggs, and meats) will result in an overabundance of cholesterol within your body, which poses the greatest risk for cardiovascular disease. Over time the build-up of plaque in the arteries can slow and even entirely block blood flow to and from the heart, causing a heart attack.
There are two types of cholesterol. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is considered a “bad” cholesterol, and is the main source of artery-clogging plaque. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is “good” cholesterol and works to clear cholesterol from the blood. There are no symptoms of high cholesterol in and of itself, so it is important to have cholesterol levels measured every 5 years after reaching the age of 20.
There are several ways to lower cholesterol. Avoid saturated fat, trans fat, and overall cholesterol intake. If you are overweight, shedding some pounds will help lower your LDL and raise you HDL. Exercise at least 30 minutes every day.
Control Blood Pressure—High blood pressure (hypertension) can damage your cardiovascular system. Blood pressure is measured by the force of blood pumped by the heart, pushing against the walls of the arteries. Hypertension causes the heart to work harder to pump blood through the body, and as a result can weaken blood vessels.
Too much sodium and too little potassium in your diet may cause hypertension. Excessive alcohol consumption, stress, and lack of exercise may also contribute to this condition.
Heart Disease & Depression:
Studies have indicated that heart disease and depression are linked. The relationship is a two-way street: Heart disease may lead to depression and depression may lead to heart disease.
Along with high blood pressure and cholesterol, depression has become a major risk factor for heart disease. One Baltimore study found that those with a history of depression were four times more likely to develop a heart disease. Furthermore, research conducted in Montreal revealed that heart disease patients who suffered depression were four times more likely to die within six months, compared with those who were not depressed.
Psychological stress can cause rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure and cholesterol, increased levels of insulin, and a faster rate of blood clotting. Conversely, one out of three people who have suffered a heart attack are at risk for major depression.
Women & Heart Disease:
Heart disease affects women of all ages, but is most common among women over the age of 55. When women reach the age of menopause, they are at a higher risk of developing heart disease. Although there are no definitive reasons why post-menopausal women are at increased risk, it may be due to the change in estrogen levels that occurs at this time in life. Moreover, women who take Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), usually a combination of estrogen and progestin, are more at risk for heart attack, stroke, and blood clots.
Also, the structure of the heart differs in men and women. Since most tests and treatments were developed for male patients, these measures may be less effective for women. The size of the heart itself tends to differ among the sexes, and the blood vessels within a woman’s heart are usually more narrow and curved than are those of a man’s. In some women, plaque build-up in the arteries is evenly spread, whereas plaque found in a man’s arteries tends to be bulky and irregular. Where the solution to his problem may be angioplasty or stenting, the treatment she may seek could be as simple as drug therapy.
Along with high cholesterol and hypertension, women have some unique risks for developing heart disease. Metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, blood glucose, trigylycerides, and obesity combined) takes greater health tolls on women. Stress and depression has been proven to affect a woman’s heart more than in men.