Are You at Risk of Heart Disease?

02/21/24  10:11 AM PST
racism and health in ohio

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. In 2021, heart disease was responsible for 1 in every 5 deaths. It is a silent killer that often does not show symptoms until you are already experiencing a medical emergency. Did you know around 1 in every 20 adults aged 20 or older has coronary heart disease?

As one of your five vital organs, caring for your heart should be high on your priorities list. But do you know how to keep your heart healthy? Are you aware of what you are risking if you don’t?


Heart Disease vs. Cardiovascular Disease

When learning about the heart, it may seem like the terms heart disease and cardiovascular disease are used interchangeably. However, they are not the same. Cardiovascular diseases affect the cardiovascular system, comprised of the heart and blood vessels that pump blood throughout the body, whereas heart diseases affect the heart’s structure and function. So, while all heart diseases are cardiovascular diseases, not all cardiovascular diseases are heart diseases. Some cardiovascular diseases include stroke, kidney disease, impaired blood supply to body parts such as the legs and arms, and more.

While there are many different heart diseases, coronary heart disease or coronary artery disease is often referred to as “heart disease”. Coronary heart disease occurs when plaque (fat, calcium, cholesterol, and other substances) builds up in the arteries, reducing the amount of oxygen rich blood that is being delivered to the heart. This can cause chest pain, lead to blood clots, and even end in medical emergencies such as heart attack, stroke, or heart failure.

Other major heart and cardiovascular diseases include arrhythmia, cardiomyopathy, congenital heart disease, aortic disease, and heart valve disease.


Medical Emergencies Caused by Heart Disease

Heart disease may not show symptoms. It can be silent or undiagnosed until a person begins to experience the signs of a medical emergency such as a heart attack, arrhythmia, or worse.

Heart attacks, also known as myocardial infarction, occur when part of the heart muscle doesn’t receive enough blood due to a blocked artery. The longer the muscle goes without proper access to blood flow, the more damage there will be to the heart. Coronary artery disease is the main reason for heart attacks. Plaque buildups can rupture, creating a blood clot, which can then block arteries. Some symptoms of a heart attack include chest pain or discomfort, feeling weak or faint, upper back, neck, or jaw pain, extreme fatigue, upper body discomfort, dizziness, or shortness of breath.

Arrhythmias are a problem with the rhythm of the heartbeat. It may beat too quickly, too slowly, or irregularly. It’s normal for the heart to occasionally skip a beat. A change in heartbeat is also normal during physical activity or rest. However, if the rhythm is frequently irregular, your heart may not be pumping enough blood. Some symptoms may include palpitations in the chest or feeling dizzy or faint.

Heart Failure occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to support other organs in the body. While heart failure is a serious condition, it does not mean that the heart has stopped beating. It may develop suddenly or over time and can cause damage to your liver or kidneys. This can lead to other conditions such as pulmonary hypertension, heart valve disease, or sudden cardiac arrest. Symptoms include shortness of breath during daily activities, trouble breathing when lying down, fatigue, or swelling in the feet, ankles, legs, or abdomen.


What Are Some Factors That (Can) Increase Risk of Heart Disease?

High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking can have serious negative effects on your heart’s health and are some of the most important factors you can monitor and manage.

High Blood Pressure – High blood pressure is very common and usually has no symptoms, so it is very important to consistently monitor your blood pressure. Blood pressure is the pressure of your blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is when your blood pressure is consistently higher than normal throughout the day. High blood pressure can lead to heart disease, heart attacks, or stroke.

High Blood Cholesterol – Cholesterol is found in certain foods and is also made by the liver. It is a waxy, fat-like substance that, when in excess, can build up on the walls of arteries, narrowing the arterial pathways and decreasing blood flow to your heart, brain, kidneys, and other parts of the body.

There are two types of cholesterol: LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein). LDL can cause plaque buildup and is considered “bad” cholesterol. HDL is considered “good” cholesterol because at high levels, it can provide some protection from heart disease by removing cholesterol from the arteries and moving it to the liver for detoxification.

Like high blood pressure, high cholesterol also usually has no symptoms or signs. Your healthcare provider can perform a blood test called a “lipid profile” to measure your cholesterol levels.

Other factors such as smoking, obesity, diabetes, and excessive alcohol use can increase your risk of developing heart disease and should be continuously monitored and managed.


How Can You Protect Yourself from Heart Disease?

By choosing to live a healthy lifestyle, you can reduce your risk of developing heart disease or experiencing a medical emergency. Here are some healthy habits you can follow to help manage your heart’s health.

Eat a healthy, balanced diet – A balanced diet is vital to multiple functions of the body, and one of the most notable is your heart health. A diet that is high in saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol can lead to plaque build up and eventually a wide array of heart diseases and emergencies. Processed foods and foods high in sodium should be avoided too.

Manage your weight – Those who are overweight or obese are at a higher risk of developing heart disease. Obesity has been linked to higher levels of “bad” cholesterol, higher blood pressure, and diabetes, which are all contributing factors to heart disease. Extra weight can also put more stress on your heart and blood vessels. Talk to your doctor about what a healthy weight range is for you and how to achieve or maintain that weight.

Maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol – Monitoring your blood pressure and cholesterol levels can give you insight into what’s going on inside your body. Talk to your doctor about regular blood pressure and cholesterol tests, and discuss what steps you can take to make sure you are maintaining appropriate levels.

Reduce stress – While stress is a normal part of life, constant stress can create high levels of the hormone cortisol. This can increase cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure, promoting plaque buildup in the arteries. Examine the big stressors in your life and work to counteract them.

Keep diabetes under control – Unfortunately, having diabetes means you are more likely to develop heart disease. High blood glucose levels can damage blood vessels and nerves connected to your heart, possibly leading to eventual heart disease. However, by managing your diabetes, you can lower your risk and protect your heart’s health. Click here to download a self-assessment for type 2 diabetes.

Speak with your doctor before you make changes to your diet and physical activity. If you are prescribed medication for high blood pressure, it is important to follow your doctor’s orders and notify them of any lifestyle changes.


For more information about how to protect your heart’s health:

Improving Heart Health

Heart Health: Managing Your Cholesterol

Heart Health: Blood Pressure

The DASH Diet for Heart Health



Resources Include:
Recent Health Care Professionals

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