Dr. Cory Couillard
Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are the world’s most lethal killers, claiming 17.3 million lives per year. This staggering statistic represents 30 percent of all global deaths per year according to the World Health Organization (WHO). By 2030, almost 23.6 million people will die from CVDs if comprehensive prevention and education programs are not implemented immediately.
In partnership with WHO, the World Heart Federation organizes World Heart Day on 29th September 2012. Awareness events are hosted in more than 100 countries and are focused on education of what cardiovascular disease is and how it can be treated and prevented.
There are many risk factors for heart disease and stroke, including high blood pressure, cholesterol and even elevated the blood sugar levels common to diabetes. Other major contributing factors include physical inactivity, poor diet, obesity and smoking.
Heart attack warning signs
Some heart attacks are sudden and intense. Others start slowly, with only mild pain or discomfort, then progress over time. Commonly, a person experiencing a heart attack is not fully aware of what is happening and fails to get immediate medical attention. This can prove fatal.
Signs and symptoms of a heart attack may include:
• Shortness of breath or a “tight” chest sensation
• Pain over the heart or the middle of the chest
• Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, neck, jaw and back
• A cold sweat, upset stomach and possible dizziness
Stroke warning signs
A stroke is always a medical emergency. If you have any of these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.
• Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arms or legs
• Sudden vision changes in one or both eyes
• Sudden difficulty walking due to dizziness, loss of balance and incoordination
• Sudden piercing headaches without cause
What causes cardiovascular disease?
Cardiovascular disease is not limited to one risk factor as it is a combination of genetics and lifestyle factors such as poor diet, lack of physical exercise and smoking. This deadly condition is also associated with other conditions that are progressively worsening, like diabetes and obesity. The more risk factors that you have, the greater your chance of developing cardiovascular disease.
Many of the risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease cause problems because they affect the blood flow to the heart, brain and body. This phenomenon is called atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis is the narrowing and thickening of arteries that develops for years without you even knowing it. This is one of the reasons that cardiovascular disease is known as the “silent killer.”
The hardening, narrowing and thickening of the arteries is due to the deposition of fatty material known as cholesterol to the walls of blood vessels. Inflammation in the body due to stress, poor diet and physical inactivity is the leading cause of high cholesterol.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is a natural part of the every cell in your body. Your body needs it for proper healing, brain function and nerve transmission. Your liver produces cholesterol but it is also a byproduct of the food that you eat.
Stress, injuries and other aspects that negatively affect the body produce excess cholesterol as a healing response. Many chronic, or long-term, health conditions will spike cholesterol levels and put you at risk for heart disease and stroke.
There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL is commonly referred to as “bad” cholesterol, while is HDL is known as “good” cholesterol. Diet, exercise, sleep and stress reduction will spike “good” cholesterol while lowering “bad” cholesterol.
What is the connection between high blood pressure and heart disease?
Blood pressure is controlled by the flexibility and overall size of the blood vessels. Inflammation and excess cholesterol reduce the flow of blood, which ultimately increases the pressure within the blood vessel.
When the pressure increases, your heart must work harder to pump blood through the smaller space and wherever the blood is traveling to (e.g.: arms, toes, brain, etc.) will suffer. Blood carries vital nutrients and oxygen to tissues throughout body. The diminished blood flow ultimately affects the ability to heal. Over time, the tissues deteriorate.
How are smoking and heart disease linked?
Smoke contains chemicals that damage the lining of the blood vessels, producing inflammation and increasing fatty deposits in the arteries. Ingredients like nicotine raise blood pressure, increase heart rate and reduce oxygen flow to the tissues.
Smoking is a destructive lifestyle choice that is highly addictive. It has been linked to weight gain, weight-loss resistance, physical inactivity and excessive chemical stress on the body. Deaths resulting from cardiovascular disease could be greatly reduced by simply eliminating smoking.
Does diet play a part in the development of heart disease?
We are what we eat. Every choice we make today will impact us tomorrow. Our diet plays a significant role in the prevention or production of heart disease. Diets high in artificial processed fats, low in fresh vegetables and fruit, and high in alcohol are at the greatest risk of heart disease.
To help keep your blood pressure under control, and therefore lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, limit the amount of salt you consume. As much as 75 percent of the salt in the average diet comes from processed foods—everything from bacon to soups to salad dressings.
Choose foods without added salt, and preparing home-cooked meals with little or no salt. All-natural food items such as fruits, vegetables, fish and lean meats have very little salt.
Is heart disease linked to age or gender?
Your risk of developing a heart attack increases significantly with age. More than 80 percent of people who die of heart disease are 60 years of age or older. Men have a greater risk of developing a heart attack earlier in life. Women are more susceptible to heart attack after menopause due to diminished levels of estrogen.
Estrogen is known to raise “good” HDL cholesterol, thus protecting a woman early in life. However, the positive effects of estrogen are negated if a woman is overweight, suffers from diabetes or has elevated cholesterol.
Is heart disease hereditary?
You may be at risk if you have a family member or parent who has developed a heart attack or stroke at an early age, but genetics is no longer the primary determinant for cardiovascular disease. Learned lifestyle habits such as exercise, diet and stress management have been found to play a significant role in the development of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
Good lifestyle habits are the most effective ways to prevent cardiovascular disease regardless of your age, gender or race. The good news: Even if your mother or father had heart disease, you can still make personal lifestyle improvements that reduce your risk significantly. Your choices are not genetic.
Dr. Cory Couillard is an international healthcare speaker and columnist for numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and publications throughout the world. He works in collaboration with the World Health Organization's goals of disease prevention and global healthcare education. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement.
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