What Is Heart Disease: Causes, Risk Factors & Prevention

02/19/2020 | 8 min. read

Dr. Stephen Sinatra

Dr. Stephen Sinatra

What Is Heart DiseaseYour heart is one of the most important muscles in your body. It is tasked with the responsibility of pumping oxygen-filled blood to every cell and organ in your body, literally keeping you alive. But as important as it is, many people ignore their heart—until something goes wrong. As a result, the number of adults suffering with heart disease is staggering.

According to the American Heart Association, approximately 610,000 people die of heart disease in the U.S. each year, making it the leading cause of mortality. Plus, it affects women just as often as it does men, solidly beating breast cancer as the number one killer of women. The good news is there is a lot you can do to prevent heart disease.

What Is Heart Disease?

While there are several forms of heart disease, the most common form is coronary artery disease (CAD), which is a narrowing or blockage of the blood vessels in the heart—also called atherosclerosis. When the arteries that bring blood to your heart muscle harden and narrow, coronary artery disease occurs. Left untreated, coronary artery disease can lead to arrhythmias, heart failure, and a heart attack.

Symptoms of Heart Disease

While some symptoms of heart disease are the same for men and women, others are different. The symptoms of heart disease in men can include:

  • Chest discomfort
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Intolerable fatigue
  • Jaw pain
  • Neck pain
  • Pain in the left arm
  • Indigestion or nausea

With women, however, the symptoms of heart disease can be subtler, including:

  • Pressure in the back or chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness with exertion
  • Throat tightness
  • Vertigo (dizziness)
  • Indigestion or nausea
  • Excessive sweating
  • Generalized "flu-like" symptoms
  • Jaw or tooth pain

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of heart disease, you want to seek treatment immediately to prevent a full-blown cardiovascular event from occurring.

What Causes Heart Disease?

When it comes to heart disease, many people—doctors included—focus on cholesterol. But the truth is, cholesterol is not what causes heart disease. In fact, only about half of heart attack victims have high cholesterol levels—and at least half of all people with high cholesterol do not have heart disease.

So, if cholesterol isn’t the culprit, what causes heart disease?

  • Inflammation: A high level of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP) is directly associated with plaque in the arteries. It’s one of the top risk factors for heart disease, and a much more accurate predictor of a future cardiac event than high cholesterol levels.

  • Smoking: There are about 4,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke that can result in free radical damage to the blood vessels, causing heart disease. Those same chemicals can increase blood stickiness, raise your blood pressure, and damage your blood vessel wall linings—all of which can increase your chances of having a stroke or heart attack.

  • Uncontrolled High Blood Pressure: When your blood pressure is elevated, it can cause the inner layer of your arteries (called the endothelium) to become damaged. When this happens, your body sends cholesterol to plug up the damage. Over time, this cholesterol forms plaque that narrows and hardens your arteries—setting the stage for heart disease.

  • Belly Fat: Also called visceral fat, belly fat is a metabolically active form of fat that many people correctly link to diabetes—but the dangers don’t end there. Belly fat also releases chemicals that cause inflammation throughout your body, including damaging the arterial wall lining. 

  • High Blood Sugar and Insulin: The pancreas secretes insulin, which moves blood glucose (sugar) into your cells where it’s used for energy. When insulin levels are chronically high, a chain reaction of biochemical developments can lead to arterial inflammation, which is one of the major symptoms of coronary heart disease. Surging insulin levels can predispose you to inflammation of the blood vessels, which can lay down plaque formation in your arteries—so it’s a major risk factor for heart disease.

  • Chronic Stress: When looking at the risk factors for heart disease, many people (doctors included), overlook stress. But stress is a significant contributor. When you’re stressed, your body reacts by releasing adrenaline—increasing your heart rate and raising your blood pressure. If this occurs on a regular basis, it can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease.

What Tests Can Determine If You’re at Risk?

Now that you know what causes heart disease, it’s important to assess your risk factors for heart disease. If you have one or more of the risk factors for heart disease, your doctor can perform the following tests:

  • Bloodwork: In a good cardiovascular workup, your doctor will want to test for C-reactive protein (inflammation), fibrinogen, homocysteine, Lp(a), and ferritin (iron). 

  • CT Scan for Coronary Calcifications: Coronary calcifications are a serious risk factor for heart disease, and a CT scan is one of the least invasive ways to determine if your arteries contain calcifications. Plus, here’s something many people don’t know: If calcium is picked up in another part of your body during an unrelated diagnostic procedure, it can be a sign that you may also have calcium in your coronary arteries. So, it’s important to follow up with a CT scan
     
  • Electron-Beam Computed Tomography (EBCT): This noninvasive test looks at your coronary arteries to measure how much hardened plaque they contain. This test is one reliable way to measure heart attack risk in people who don’t necessarily have the classic heart risk factors.

  • Intimal Medial Thickness Analysis (IMT): A highly sophisticated screening tool, an IMT measures the thickness of your carotid artery. If you have increased IMT, it can be a sign that you’re at increased risk for heart disease and stroke. An IMT analysis can also pick up soft, transient plaque—which is an important, and potentially deadly, risk factor that is often undetected.

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG): If you’re over 50, or have had symptoms of heart issues, chances are your doctor has performed an EKG. This noninvasive procedure uses 12 leads to measure the electric potential of your heart in different directions. Not only does it supply important information about your heart’s conduction system, it can also signal heart blockages.

  • Echocardiogram: Like an ultrasound, an echocardiogram displays on a video monitor a real-time picture of how the heart is functioning. This test can not only look at heart function, it can measure the size and thickness of your heart’s chambers as well as how much blood is being pumped with each heartbeat.

  • Nuclear Stress Test: Unlike a regular treadmill stress test, this test uses radioactive isotope to show the blood flow to your heart while you’re at rest, and during exertion. It’s one of the most accurate noninvasive ways to diagnose coronary artery disease.

How to Prevent Heart Disease

The good news about heart disease is that there are a lot of things you can do to mitigate your risk factors for heart disease—before they become a danger. So, in looking at how to prevent heart disease, you want to:

  • Take Heart Supporting Supplements: To keep your heart healthy, I recommend a combination of nutrients I call the Awesome Foursome: CoQ10, D-Ribose, magnesium, and L-carnitine. Together, these nutrients support the heart muscle and supply energy to the heart. I also recommend taking anti-inflammatory nutrients, including omega-3s, turmeric, delta tocotrienol, and resveratrol. 

  • Stop Smoking: If you’re a smoker, quitting can make a dramatic difference in your risk factors for heart disease. Just 20 minutes after you quit, your heart rate and blood pressure benefit. Within a month, your blood flow begins to improve. After a year, your heart disease risk drops by half, and after five years your risk is the same as a nonsmoker. 

  • Maintain Healthy Blood Pressure: To prevent heart disease, you want to maintain a blood pressure level below 120/80mmHG. To keep your blood pressure healthy, lower your salt and sugar intake, drink more water, and reduce stress. There are also a number of nutrients that help to support normal blood pressure, including hawthorn, magnesium, CoQ10, and DHA omega-3 essential fatty acids.

  • Lose Weight: Being overweight is one of the most significant risk factors for heart disease. Dropping even a few pounds can begin to benefit your heart health. In studies, people who lost as little as 10 pounds significantly reduced their cardiovascular risk factors.

  • Eat a Noninflammatory Diet: To keep inflammation at bay, you want to eat a noninflammatory diet. This includes reducing, or better yet eliminating, sugar and simple carbohydrates from your diet. Overall, I recommend eating what I call the Pan Asian Modified Mediterranean diet, because it is rich in omega-3s and other heart supporting foods.

  • Reduce Stress: Reducing stress and tension in your life can help you maintain healthy blood pressure, and prevent heart disease. When stress does occur, it’s also important to engage in stress reducing activities—such as yoga or meditation.

  • Exercise: Inactivity is a significant risk factor for heart disease. In looking at how to prevent heart disease, walking is an excellent option. Walking for just 30 minutes four times a week can go a long way toward minimizing your risk factors for heart disease. But ask your doctor first to make sure you’re cleared for exercise.

How to Ward Off Heart Disease

Dr. Stephen Sinatra

Meet Dr. Stephen Sinatra

Dr. Stephen Sinatra is a highly respected and sought-after cardiologist and nutritionist with more than 30 years of clinical practice, research, and study. His integrative approach to heart health focuses on reducing inflammation in the body and maximizing the heart's ability to produce and use energy.

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