Symptoms of heart disease and how to prevent the “American curse”

According to the American Heart Association, more than half of U.S. adults don't know that heart disease is the leading cause of death. This is worrying news because many of those deaths are preventable.

Heart disease, or cardiovascular disease, is a broad term that refers to a group of health problems that interfere with the functioning of the heart. Although some causes of heart disease are genetic, most develop over time. The most common type of heart disease in the United States is coronary artery disease, in which plaque builds up in the arteries and blocks blood flow.

Even if your family has a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol, such as high cholesterol, you may be able to prevent this type of heart disease or reduce your risk of developing it. But many of our daily habits, like not eating enough healthy foods, sitting too much, or not getting enough sleep, all affect our daily habits, says Andrew Freeman, a cardiologist at National Jewish Health in Denver. They constitute what he calls “the American curse.”

“These are exactly the recipes for early death and disability,” Freeman said, adding that much of the Western world suffers from the same “curse.”

Here's what you need to know about heart disease symptoms and common health concerns that can come with heart disease, plus recommendations from cardiologists to improve your heart health in ways you'll actually enjoy. Here are some tips.

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What are the symptoms of heart disease?

Symptoms depend on what is happening to your heart (if you have any). According to the Cleveland Clinic, early symptoms of heart disease include chest pain, shortness of breath, leg swelling, fatigue, and dizziness.

Most people with heart disease have coronary artery disease, which most commonly causes chest pain (angina). If you have undiagnosed chest pain and the pain does not stop after you stop moving, call 911 because you may be having a heart attack. Acting quickly greatly increases your chances of saving yourself from a heart attack.

In some cases, experiencing a heart attack may be the first clue that you have heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of a heart attack include chest pain or discomfort, weakness or light-headedness, nausea, cold sweats, shoulder pain, and shortness of breath. Women are more likely to experience less obvious symptoms during a heart attack, such as jaw or back pain, so don't ignore your symptoms even if you think you might be having a heart attack.

Symptoms of heart disease can vary widely and may not even exist at all, so the best course of action is to focus on prevention, getting tested regularly, and calling your doctor right away if you have any concerns.

What you need to know if you have high blood pressure

About half of U.S. adults have high blood pressure (hypertension). This is important in conversations about heart disease because high blood pressure is a risk factor because it can damage blood vessels.

The good news is that high blood pressure can be managed or reversed, according to Dr. Jonathan Vafay, a cardiologist at Delray Medical Center. Many of the things that make your heart healthier also help control your blood pressure. In some cases (with the express permission of a doctor who has tested your heart health), the need for medication may disappear.

“The number one thing I want to do is get off the blood pressure medication if necessary,” Vafai said.

What about high cholesterol?

Because the plaque that builds up in your arteries is made of cholesterol (and other substances), doctors recommend monitoring your cholesterol to keep it within a healthy range. Although the general understanding of cholesterol is complex, doctors know that too much “bad” cholesterol can cause coronary artery disease and blood vessel and heart problems.

For certain patients who are middle-aged and have risk factors for heart disease, such as high cholesterol, diabetes or a family history of heart disease, Dr. Vafai said she recommends screenings such as a calcium score scan.

It's a series of X-rays that look for calcium-containing plaques, so it's a non-invasive way to check for risk before symptoms of the disease appear.

High cholesterol is similar to other chronic diseases (often asymptomatic) that are closely related to each other and affect quality of life. But while the health condition itself may seem complicated, the risk of developing the condition in the first place can be reduced by making the same small changes to your daily life and improving your overall health.

Illustration of a heart with fun things inside Illustration of a heart with fun things inside

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1. Eat more plants and whole foods

To reduce your risk of heart disease, Freeman recommends a diet that is primarily plant-based, low in fat, and rich in “whole foods.” Whole foods don't have to be fancy. In fact, the opposite is true. You can think of whole foods as foods that contain “ingredients” such as fruits, vegetables, beans, meat, rice, bread, etc. (And no, I don't mean that they can't be flavored or that they're boring — the point is, It is about making the most of the food source itself and eliminating additives such as preservatives and sugar.)

One way to start incorporating more nutritious foods into your diet is to focus on adding color to your plate.

2. Be careful of meat-rich or restrictive diets

High-protein diets, or the more extreme “lion diet,” are trending on social media to alleviate chronic pain and health conditions by eliminating things from your plate and moving away from a meat-based approach to eating. Some people think that there is something to it. However, the experts we spoke to advised us to proceed with caution, as protein choices can come with other health risks, such as eating too much red or processed meat.

There are also keto diets that have been proven by research to reduce weight. It may be a healthy choice for some, but not for everyone.

“When you get rid of the 'carbs,' you lose weight,” Freeman said of the carbohydrates that people can consume in excess.

“But that doesn't necessarily mean they're healthier,” he added.

Clay craftsman training in the living room Clay craftsman training in the living room

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3. Move your body (any method)

Sitting too much is bad for your health. But you'd be surprised at how much effort you need to put into physical activity to start reaping the heart health benefits.

“I would encourage people to do what they can,” Vafai said, adding that people's health improved after walking their dogs. Find an activity that gets you moving every day.

How do you know when you've gotten a good workout? Freeman recommends trying to get to the point where it's “hard to talk about.”

Here, we'll explain in detail how to exercise when you don't feel like exercising and how to have snacks that “get you moving.”

4. Be careful about drinking and smoking

You probably already know that smoking is bad for your health and is linked to heart disease. But Freeman said other drugs and substances, such as alcohol and marijuana, can also have an effect.

Freeman says water is the obvious choice for the most heart-healthy drink, but unsweetened tea and coffee are also good options. In addition to regular sodas being high in sugar, diet sodas can affect insulin, so people should think twice before reaching for diet sodas, he said. .

5. Learn from “Blue Zones”

The hype is real. Freeman recommends taking notes from people who live in “blue zones” (Loma Linda, California, in the US). These are areas where people tend to live longer, and community, nutrition, activity, and sleep patterns can all contribute to longevity.

Two people trying to hug through their respective glass containers Two people trying to hug through their respective glass containers

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6. De-stress and connect

There's a reason we're in a loneliness epidemic. Experts know that loneliness and social isolation are associated with poor health, including heart disease and early death, but the exact mechanisms are difficult to pin down. Stress hormones and lifestyle effects due to fewer relationships may play a role.

Freeman said cultural phenomena, especially those that struggle with social connections, contribute to heart disease. While there's no quick fix for something so pervasive and embedded in our culture, Freeman recommends starting activities like meditation and walks in the woods.

For more information, here are some strategies to help you feel less lonely and ways to manage your daily stress.

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