According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, killing over 600,000 Americans each year. While some of the risk factors for this national health problem can’t be prevented, many others can. So come with us as we explore the various types of heart disease and what you can do to limit your risk.
What Is Heart Disease?
The heart is a muscular organ with four chambers—two upper chambers called atria and two lower chambers called ventricles. All the blood in our bodies circulates through these four chambers.
The right atrium takes in oxygen-poor blood from the body and pumps it to the right ventricle, which in turn sends blood to the lungs. By contrast, the left atrium receives oxygen-rich blood from the lungs and pumps it to the left ventricle, which sends blood out to the entire body.
If something happens to disrupt this process, whether a heart condition we’re born with or a disease process we develop later in life, the heart’s ability to pump enough blood to supply the body with the nutrients and oxygen it needs can become compromised, and heart disease, or cardiovascular disease, as it’s also known, can result.
Risk Factors for Heart Disease
According to CDC statistics, approximately 47% of Americans have at least one of the three main risk factors for heart disease:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
However, several other factors can also increase an individual’s risk of this largely preventable disease. These include:
- Family history: People with a family history of heart disease are more likely to develop the condition themselves, especially if a parent had the disease at a young age.
- Age: Older adults have a greater risk of heart disease than any other age group, and adults over the age of 65 are more likely to die of heart disease.
- Sex: Men are more likely than women to develop cardiovascular disease, though women’s risk increases after menopause.
- Weight: People who are obese have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
- Diet: People who consume diets high in salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats have a greater risk of heart disease.
- Activity level: Physical inactivity increases an individual’s risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Stress: Long-term stress leads to chronically high levels of inflammation, which can damage the heart and increase the risk of heart disease.
- Medical conditions: Certain medical conditions, including diabetes, increase a person’s risk of developing heart disease.
Types of Heart Disease
The term heart disease actually encompasses a range of different heart problems, but the most common types of heart disease are the following.
This type of heart disease is actually made up of three separate conditions—atherosclerosis (the most common type), arteriolosclerosis, and Mönckeberg medial calcific sclerosis—all of which make arteriosclerosis the number one cause of heart disease–related deaths.
Arteriosclerosis is the result of the gradual thickening and hardening of the arteries, which may be caused by fatty deposits on the arterial walls (atherosclerosis), thickening and hardening of the small blood vessels that branch off the main artery (arteriolosclerosis), or calcium deposits within the middle layer of an artery (Mönckeberg medial calcific sclerosis).
While arteriosclerosis typically has no warning signs in the early stages, if the condition is allowed to progress, arterial blood flow can become restricted to the point that an aneurysm (bulge in an arterial wall), coronary artery disease, carotid artery disease, peripheral artery disease, or even chronic kidney disease can develop.
Also known as coronary heart disease, coronary artery disease is a direct result of unchecked atherosclerosis, which makes it the most common type of heart disease. If left untreated, coronary artery disease can cause angina (chest pain), abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia), heart failure, or a heart attack (myocardial infarction).
There are actually many different types of arrhythmias, also known as irregular heartbeats, but each is the result of a disruption in the electrical impulses that control heart rhythm. Arrhythmias are also classified based on whether they originate in the atria or ventricles and whether they involve bradycardia (slow heart rate) or tachycardia (fast heart rate). While an irregular heartbeat can simply be a normal variation in heart rhythm, some arrhythmias can lead to stroke, heart failure, or even sudden cardiac death.
If bacteria, viruses, or parasites enter the heart, they can lead to infection. Pericarditis, or inflammation of the membrane that surrounds the heart, is usually mild and may improve on its own. Endocarditis, which affects the inner lining of the heart valves and chambers, can be life-threatening and is usually seen in people with pre-existing heart defects. Myocarditis, which involves inflammation of the heart muscle, is the rarest of the three primary types of heart infections and can be relatively mild or lead to severe complications, including heart failure.
This type of heart disease affects the heart muscle itself, causing the heart to grow larger and thicker, which makes it more difficult for the heart to pump blood out to the body. There are actually several different types of cardiomyopathy, but each results in weakness of the heart muscle. And this can lead to blood clot (thrombosis), heart failure, sudden cardiac death, or valvular heart disease.
Congenital Heart Defects
This type of heart disease involves abnormalities in the structure of the heart. Congenital heart defects are the most common types of birth defects and can result in holes in the heart, leaky heart valves, and problems with major blood vessels. Although some types of defects don’t cause any problems, some are quite serious and can lead to problems including congestive heart failure, arrhythmia, stroke, and developmental delays.
Valvular Heart Disease
In addition to the heart’s four chambers, the heart also has four valves—the aortic, mitral, pulmonary, and tricuspid valves—which help guide blood flow through the heart. If these valves become damaged due to a congenital defect, infection, or other heart problem, they can develop stenosis (narrowing), regurgitation (leaking), or prolapse (improper closure), which can lead to potentially serious complications, such as heart failure, blood clot, stroke, arrhythmia, or sudden cardiac death.
Symptoms of Heart Disease
Heart disease symptoms can vary depending on whether you’re a woman or a man. For example, men are more likely to experience chest pain, while women are more likely to have shortness of breath, nausea, fatigue, and chest discomfort.
In addition, symptoms of heart disease may be different depending on what type of heart problem is present:
- Arteriosclerosis and coronary artery disease: Symptoms of both arteriosclerosis and coronary artery disease may include chest pain, shortness of breath, pain or numbness in the extremities, and jaw, neck, back, or abdominal pain.
- Arrhythmia: Symptoms of arrhythmia may include chest fluttering, abnormally slow or racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness, and chest pain.
- Cardiomyopathy: Symptoms of cardiomyopathy may include shortness of breath, leg swelling, arrhythmia, lightheadedness, and fatigue.
- Heart infections: Symptoms of heart infections may include sharp chest pain, shortness of breath, flu-like symptoms, arrhythmia, fatigue, night sweats, leg and abdominal swelling, and palpitations.
- Congenital heart defects: Symptoms of congenital heart defects may include cyanosis (bluish skin color), swelling, shortness of breath, arrhythmia, easy fatigability, chest pain, and feeding difficulties or delayed growth in infants.
- Valvular heart disease: Symptoms of valvular heart disease may include heart murmur, shortness of breath, fatigue, arrhythmia, lower extremity swelling, dizziness, and syncope (fainting).
Limiting Your Heart Disease Risk
While some forms of heart disease, like congenital heart defects, can’t be prevented and certain risk factors, such as age, sex, and family history, can’t be changed, it is possible to limit your risk of most types of heart disease with just a few simple lifestyle changes.
One of the most important risk factors for cardiovascular disease is smoking, so quitting (or not starting in the first place) can greatly decrease your risk of heart disease and its complications.
Physical activity plays a major role in preventing cardiovascular disease, and striving for 30 to 60 minutes of exercise most days of the week—whether that’s dancing, working out at a gym, or simply enjoying regular walks—can lead to improvements in many of the major risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. However, individuals with advanced symptoms of heart disease or severe heart problems should speak with their health care provider before beginning any exercise program.
Manage Pre-existing Conditions
If you have high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, or high cholesterol, getting these risk factors under control can help stop the progression of pre-existing cardiovascular disease or prevent the condition altogether.
Nurture Mental Health
Excessive stress and mental health conditions like depression are known to contribute to the development of heart disease, so it’s important to address these issues. Getting proper sleep, avoiding insomnia, and utilizing techniques like meditation and yoga have all been shown to be effective in lowering stress levels and may also alleviate many symptoms of depression. Moreover, there’s evidence to suggest that natural methods, including amino acids, may be as or even more beneficial for the treatment of depression than pharmaceutical approaches.
Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet
Diets that minimize excessive sugar and salt, processed foods, and saturated fat and emphasize plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats have been proven to reduce the risk of many inflammatory conditions, including heart disease.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are required for almost every biological process in the body. And when taken as part of a balanced formula of essential amino acids, the amino acids citrulline, arginine, leucine, and carnitine have been shown to be effective in the treatment of heart failure by aiding in the maintenance of muscle mass, helping to regulate blood flow, and improving energy production.
Likewise, an increasing body of evidence suggests that the amino acid taurine may be effective in reducing blood pressure as well as the risk of cardiac dysfunction and heart failure.
And a number of studies have shown that the amino acids cysteine, alanine, glutamate, glutamine, glycine, isoleucine, valine, along with a balanced intake of all nine essential amino acids, can help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels, increase exercise capacity, and improve vascular function.
The mineral magnesium also plays an important role in heart health, and a deficiency has been implicated in a number of heart-related conditions, including high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy, arrhythmia, elevated cholesterol levels, heart attack, and stroke. Yet studies have shown that the majority of people in the United States, through a mixture of poor diet and depleted soils, may not be getting the magnesium their bodies need.
The body’s levels of the antioxidant coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) also decline with age, and levels have been found to be even lower in individuals with heart disease. What’s more, studies have shown that supplementation with CoQ10 can improve symptoms of congestive heart failure and may help lower blood pressure as well.
As you can see, a number of proven natural approaches are available to help you reduce your risk of heart disease. And by instituting just a few of these simple lifestyle changes, you can not only decrease your risk of becoming the next victim of the number one killer in the United States but also improve your overall health and quality of life.