Frequently asked questions on important topics

Zumba Fitness at Kemps Corner with Zumba Fitness Instructor ZIN Swetha Jairam
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March 29, 2017
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Research Expert Panel Member ZIN Swetha Jairam
 
 

Cardiovascular Disease

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is a term that includes several more specific heart conditions. The most common heart disease in the US is coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle become hardened and narrowed due to the buildup of plaque. The narrowing and buildup of plaques is called atherosclerosis. Plaques are a mixture of fatty and other substances including cholesterol and other lipids. Blood flow to the heart is reduced, which reduces oxygen to the heart muscle. This can lead to heart attack. Other heart conditions include angina, heart failure, and arrhythmias.

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What are symptoms of heart attack?

  • 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. This can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath. This often comes along with chest discomfort. But it also can occur before chest discomfort.
  • Other symptoms. These may include breaking out in a cold sweat or experiencing nausea or light–headedness.

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What are the risk factors for heart disease?

Some conditions as well as some lifestyle factors can put people at a higher risk for heart disease. The most important modifiable risk factors for heart disease are high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, cigarette smoking, diabetes, physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, and obesity. In principle, all persons can take steps to lower their risk for heart disease. For more information about these risk factors.

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Can’t I just prevent heart disease by taking the right vitamins?

The concept of taking vitamins to prevent heart disease is a great one – the problem is that we don’t have any proof that they really do. Evidence based on nutritional surveys suggest that people who eat foods richer in vitamins E, vitamin C and other vitamins are less likely to have heart disease.

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How can I make my heart disease go away?

You are asking about the potential for “regression,” the process by which heart blockages can be made to partially get better. There is now evidence that this is possible in some people through a combination of lifestyle changes, exercise, diet, and when needed, cholesterol lowering. However, in general the major issue is not making heart blockages go away, rather just making sure that they don’t get worse or cause another heart attack. We now have tremendous evidence that future heart attacks can be prevented, especially by aggressive treatment to lower cholesterol.

 

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Can’t I wait until I get heart disease and then have angioplasty or bypass?

If only things were that easy! First, having a heart catheterization and bypass surgery is no fun and to be avoided if at all possible. But even more importantly, almost half of the people who have heart attacks die of their first heart attack before they ever have the chance of having things fixed. Therefore, it’s better to try to figure out if you’re at risk and to try to decrease your risk to prevent heart disease.

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What are the warning signs of angina or a heart attack in women?

Unfortunately, many women believe that heart disease predominates in men and is less likely a threat to a woman’s health than conditions like breast or ovarian cancer. The reality is that approximately 1 in 2 women will die from heart disease or stroke, and during any given year, cardiovascular disease will claim nearly twice as many lives as all forms of cancer combined.

While it is true that cardiovascular disease tends to strike men approximately 5 to 10 years earlier than in women, after menopause, the rate of cardiovascular disease in women accelerates and approaches the rate in men. Women are also at risk for doing worse after suffering a heart attack than men. Part of this may relate to the fact that women are typically older and have more hypertension when heart disease strikes and, thus, less able to withstand such damage to the body.

The typical symptoms of heart attack include chest pressure, tightness, or pain that may or may not radiate to your jaw, shoulders, or down your arms. If you are experiencing a true heart attack, these symptoms can come on at any time of the day or night, and can occur during rest or activity. The important consideration is that these chest sensations usually persist for more than 5 to 10 minutes (chest sensations resolving earlier than this time may be a warning sign not to ignore) and do not resolve with rest. Symptoms commonly associated include shortness of breath, clamminess, sweatiness and a nauseated feeling. Palpitations, light-headedness, profound fatigue, a heartburn-like sensation in the upper portion of your abdomen, confusion or agitation, and even a “heaviness” in your legs may occur.

Silent heart attacks are more common in older, typically female individuals, and those with diabetes, a history of smoking and prior heart disease. While these heart attacks are considered “silent,” in reality, many individuals will complain of new ill-feelings, including shortness of breath, fatigue or nausea that arise over the span of several days.

Learning about the warning signs and ways of prevention of heart attacks is one of the first steps to fighting cardiovascular disease. Listening to your body when something does not feel right is the second. Discussing these issues with your doctor and understanding the ways of prevention will allow you to follow a personally tailored prevention program that maximally reduces your risk for the years to come.

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What are normal heart rates, and how do I know if mine is too high?

Your resting heart rate is best described as the number of times your heart beats per minute when you are in a fully relaxed physical and mental state. For the typical adult (older than 18), this value usually ranges between 60 and 100 times per minute. Younger ages, however, are strongly associated with higher normal resting heart rates. Normal rates can be as high as 160 beats per minute for infants and 120 beats per minute for children. Females also tend to have slightly higher heart rates than males, as do individuals with higher body masses.

Heart rates, particularly during and after exercise, though, are also highly sensitive to a person’s hydration and nutrition status. Dehydration represents a state of diminished water supply in your body. Because circulating blood is composed of approximately 83 percent water, dehydration effectively lowers the amount of blood that your heart is able to circulate with one beat, or contraction. Your heart compensates for this low “water” volume by beating more times per minute.

Occasionally, though, medical conditions and medications must also be considered if, in fact, your resting heart rate is truly high for your current age. High stress and anxiety are the most common conditions. Anemia, overactive thyroid function, diabetes, eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, and any illness causing a fever can also each associate with higher-than-normal resting heart rates.

Certain stimulants that are smoked, ingested in your diet, or taken as dietary supplements or pills can cause significant increases in your heart rate without causing any other symptoms. These include nicotine (tobacco), caffeine, dietary pills such as ephedrine, and over-the-counter cold remedies such as Dristan and Sudafed.

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