UAB Medicine News


Take Charge of Your Heart

What You Know About Cardiovascular Disease Could Save Your Life – Or Someone You Love
How much do you know about cardiovascular disease?  If you’re in good health, you may think of it as a problem for other people.  But you may not realize that cardiovascular disease is the #1 cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. and a major cause of disability.  So there’s a good chance that you – or someone you know – will be touched in some way by this often silent, but all-too-common health threat. 

The good news is you can take charge of your heart health today by understanding what cardiovascular disease is and how it develops – an important first step in stopping the disease before it begins.  And if you’re already living with heart disease, learn everything you can about your condition and available treatments. 

The term cardiovascular disease – or heart disease – includes many different conditions that affect the structures or function of the heart.  Here’s a brief look at the 5 most common types of heart disease.

Coronary Artery Disease – The Silent Invader
If you know someone who has had a heart attack, coronary artery disease (CAD) was most likely to blame.  That’s because it’s the most common type of heart disease and is also the major reason most people have a heart attack – often the first symptom of coronary artery disease. 

CAD develops when the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle become hardened and narrowed due the buildup of a fatty material – called plaque – on their inner walls.  Many people don’t realize this buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries happens slowly over time – and may start as early as childhood. 

As the buildup grows, less blood is able to flow through the arteries – reducing the heart’s oxygen supply.  A heart attack occurs when blood flow to a part of the heart becomes completely blocked, causing that section of the heart muscle to become damaged and eventually die.  More than 1.1 million people in the U.S. have heart attacks each year – and almost half of them die.  Learning to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack so you can get medical help quickly can save your life and limit long-term damage to your heart. 

The earlier you start a heart-healthy lifestyle – like stopping smoking, improving your diet, and exercising – the better your chances of preventing the dangerous plaque buildup that leads to coronary artery disease.      

Arrhythmia – When Your Heartbeat is Out of Sync
With its steady, rhythmic beating within our chest, the heart is the one organ in our body that we can actually feel working.  But the heart’s rhythm can sometimes become unsteady or abnormal, producing either an uneven heartbeat or one that’s too fast or too slow.  These abnormal changes in heart rhythm are called arrhythmias – a condition that causes more than 850,000 people in the U.S. to be hospitalized each year. 

Your doctor can detect an arrhythmia during a routine physical exam by listening to your heartbeat with a stethoscope, taking your pulse, or with a special test called an electrocardiogram (ECG).

Much of the time, arrhythmias can be “silent” and not cause any noticeable symptoms.  But you should call your doctor right away if you have any of these possible symptoms of an arrhythmia, especially if you have heart disease or you’ve had a heart attack: 

Palpitation or rapid pounding in your chest;
Weakness, fatigue, or feeling light-headed;
Shortness of breath or fainting;
Chest pain.

Heart Failure – Serious, But Treatable
When you hear the unsettling term heart failure, you might think of a heart that’s about to stop working at any moment.  But heart failure doesn’t mean that your heart is stopping – it means that your heart can no longer pump blood the way it should. 

You may be surprised to learn that heart failure is a very common condition, affecting about 5 million people in the U.S. and causing around 300,000 deaths per year. 

Some early symptoms of heart failure might include:  

  • Feeling weak, tired, or very dizzy;
  • Becoming short of breath during exertion;
  • Palpitations (a racing or pounding heart). 

As the condition gets worse, people usually feel short of breath – even at rest – and have swelling in their legs, ankles, and feet. 

Heart Valve Disease – When Your Heart Valves Don’t Work As They Should
Your heart has four main valves with small flaps of tissue inside that open and close with each heartbeat.  When one or more of these valves don’t work the way they should, a condition called heart valve disease develops. 

Several conditions – including birth defects, age-related changes, or infections – can cause one or more of your heart valves to not open fully or to let blood leak back into the heart chambers.  When this happens, your heart has to work harder to pump blood. 

Heart valve disease is more common than you might think.  According to the American Heart Association, 5 million Americans are diagnosed with heart valve disease each year.

The most common symptoms of valve disease are: 

  • Weakness or dizziness (may also include passing out);
  • Discomfort in your chest (may feel like a pressure or weight when you’re active or out in cold air);
  • Shortness of breath and/or difficulty catching your breath;
  • Palpitations (rapid heart rhythm, a feeling of skipped beats, or a flip-flop feeling in your chest);
  • Swelling of your ankles, feet or abdomen;
  • Rapid weight gain (two or three pounds in a single day is possible).

Peripheral Vascular Disease – Blocking Vital Blood Flow to Your Limbs
The same fatty deposits, called plaque, that can build up inside your coronary arteries can also accumulate inside the walls of the arteries supplying blood to your arms and legs.  This serious but common condition – called peripheral vascular disease (PVD) – causes these arteries to become narrow or blocked.  When this happens, blood flow is reduced or cut off, causing pain and numbness in the arms or legs.  If the blockage becomes severe enough, blocked blood flow can cause tissue death and the need for amputation. 

Did you know that PVD and heart disease often occur together?  In fact, people with heart disease have a 1 in 3 chance of having blocked arteries in the legs.  Also, people with PVD have a 6 to 7 times greater risk of CAD, heart attack, stroke, or transient ischemic attack (mini stroke) than the rest of the population. 

Fortunately, the buildup of plaque in the arteries that causes PVD can often be stopped or reversed with dietary changes, exercise, and lowering high cholesterol and high blood pressure.    

Produced by UAB Medicine Marketing   Communications (learn more about our content).