On this page:
- What is heart disease?
- Types of heart disease
- Major risk factors that cause heart disease
- Heart attack warning signs
- Dietary supplements that help prevent and treat heart disease
What is heart disease?
Heart disease is a term used to refer to diseases of the heart and blood vessel system. A more correct term is “cardiovascular diseases“, and includes such diseases as coronary heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, chest pain (also called “angina“), and rheumatic heart disease.
Types of heart disease
- Coronary artery disease (CAD), the most common form of heart disease, is caused by a narrowing or clogging of the coronary arteries that supply the heart with oxygen and nutrients. CAD can cause angina (chest pain), myocardial infarction (heart attack), and cardiac sudden death (caused by severely abnormal and ineffective beating of the heart)
- A stroke occurs when blood vessels supplying the brain become narrowed or clogged. Peripheral vascular disease is similar, but occurs in the arteries that supply the legs. The same problems that can lead to CAD can also cause these diseases.
- Congestive heart failure results when the heart muscle becomes weakened and can no longer pump blood efficiently. Common symptoms include shortness of breath, exercise intolerance, and edema (swelling of the legs). Congestive heart failure can result from damage induced by heart attack or cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle).
- Cardiac arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms) can be chronic and relatively harmless, but they can also be more serious, preventing the heart from pumping effectively. In the latter case, arrhythmias can contribute to congestive heart failure or cause cardiac sudden death.
- Cardiomyopathy occurs when the heart muscle loses its ability to pump blood. Heart rhythm may be disturbed, resulting in arrhythmias. Cardiomyopathy can be caused by coronary atherosclerosis, but often the cause is unknown.
Major risk factors that cause heart disease
High Blood Pressure (Hypertension). High blood pressure increases your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Though other risk factors can lead to high blood pressure, you can have it without having other risk factors. If you are obese, you smoke, or you have high blood cholesterol levels along with high blood pressure, your risk of heart disease or stroke greatly increases.
High Blood Cholesterol. One of the major risk factors for heart disease is high blood cholesterol. Cholesterol, a fat-like substance carried in your blood, is found in all of your body's cells. Your liver produces all of the cholesterol your body needs to form cell membranes and to make certain hormones. Extra cholesterol enters your body when you eat foods that come from animals (meats, eggs, and dairy products).
Diabetes. Heart problems are the leading cause of death among people with diabetes, especially in the case of adult-onset or Type II diabetes (also known as non-insulin-dependent diabetes). Certain racial and ethnic groups (African Americans, Hispanics, Asian and Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans) have a greater risk of developing diabetes.
Smoking. Most people know that cigarette and tabacco smoking increases your risk of lung cancer, but fewer realize that it also greatly increases your risk of heart disease and peripheral vascular disease (disease in the vessels that supply blood to the arms and legs).
Physical Inactivity. People who are not active have a greater risk of heart attack than do people who exercise regularly. Exercise burns calories, helps to control cholesterol levels and diabetes, and may lower blood pressure. Exercise also strengthens the heart muscle and makes the arteries more flexible. Those who actively burn 500 to 3500 calories per week, either at work or through exercise, can expect to live longer than people who do not exercise. Even moderate-intensity exercise is helpful if done regularly.
Heart Attack Warning Signs
What are the signs of a heart attack? Many people think a heart attack is sudden and intense, like a "movie" heart attack, where a person clutches his or her chest and falls over.
The truth is that many heart attacks start slowly, as a mild pain or discomfort. If you feel such a symptom, you may not be sure what's wrong. Your symptoms may even come and go. Even those who have had a heart attack may not recognize their symptoms, because the next attack can have entirely different ones.
It's vital that everyone learn the warning signs of a heart attack. These are:
Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.
Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
Shortness of breath. Often comes along with chest discomfort. But it also can occur before chest discomfort.
Other symptoms. May include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness.
Dietary supplements that help prevent and treat heart disease
Omega-3 fatty acids are a form of polyunsaturated fats, one of four basic types of fat that the body derives from food. (Cholesterol, saturated fat, and monounsaturated fat are the others.) All polyunsaturated fats, including the omega-3s, are increasingly recognized as important to human health.
Scientists made one of the first associations between omega-3s and human health while studying the Inuit (Eskimo) people of Greenland in the 1970s. As a group, the Inuit suffered far less from certain diseases (coronary heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes mellitus, psoriasis) than their European counterparts. Yet their diet was very high in fat from eating whale, seal, and salmon. Eventually researchers realized that these foods were all rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which provided real disease-countering benefits.
In particular, omega-3s in fish oil or other forms may help to:
Improve heart health. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to play a part in keeping cholesterol levels low, stabilizing irregular heart beat (arrhythmia), and reducing blood pressure. Researchers now believe that alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), one of the omega-3s, is particularly beneficial for protecting against heart and vessel disease, and for lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels. An excellent source of ALA is flaxseed oil, sold as both a liquid oil and a semisolid margarine-like spread.
Omega-3 fatty acids are also natural blood thinners, reducing the "stickiness" of blood cells (called platelet aggregation), which can lead to such complications as blood clots and stroke.
Reduce hypertension. Studies of large groups of people have found that the more omega-3 fatty acids people consume, the lower their overall blood pressure level is. This was the case with the Greenland Eskimos who ate a lot of oily, cold-water fish, for example.
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