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Heart disease is a general term used to describe the varying conditions and diseases related to the heart and cardiovascular system. These diseases range in specificity, addressing heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias), valve disorders, congenital (birth) heart defects and diseases of the blood vessels. Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States and the world.1
The phrase “heart disease” is often used interchangeably with “cardiovascular disease.” While the term technically refers to any disease that affects the cardiovascular system, it is usually used to refer to those related to atherosclerosis (arterial disease). These conditions have similar causes, mechanisms, and treatments.
Atherosclerosis, also called coronary artery disease or coronary heart disease, plays a significant role as the precursor in the development of cardiovascular disease. This condition refers to the hardening of arterial walls and the buildup of plaque. Damage to the arterial wall, caused by such risk factors as smoking or high blood pressure, triggers the body’s innate immune response: inflammation. Circulating immune complexes, including C-reactive proteins and macrophages, as well as fibrin, travel to the affected site to try and repair the artery, forming clumps. Overtime, plaques can develop on these clumps, consisting of cholesterol, fatty deposits and other cellular waste traveling in the blood. These plaques harden the arteries and narrow the passageway by which blood reaches other organs and tissues.2
Recent evidence from clinical and population studies now suggests that inflammation is an important factor in the severity of atherosclerosis and the likeliness of developing other cardiovascular diseases. Blood flow to vital organs is limited as the vessels narrow. Plaques can then become imbedded in the artery wall, signaling for counter-acting immune responses (i.e. inflammation). When these responses are unable to break up the plaque, the buildup can burst and send clotting particles circulating in the blood. Blood clots can lead to much more serious complications and even be fatal.3,4
Heart Disease Causes and Risk Factors
Cardiovascular disease, as brought on by atherosclerosis, is associated with a number of factors which put someone at risk. These include:
Heart Disease Symptoms
Atherosclerosis is slowly progressive. The blood vessels are gradually narrowed, blocked or stiffened, making it so the heart, brain or other organs do not receive enough blood to function. Cardiovascular disease is not usually diagnosed until atherosclerosis is so severe that it creates serious problems like heart attack, stroke, heart failure or cardiac arrest. Important symptoms to pay attention to and inform your doctor of are:
Heart Disease Complications and Prognosis
Early detection of cardiovascular disease typically results in a better outcome, but everyone recovers differently. While lifestyle changes may help some, medications and surgical procedures may be necessary for others. Worsening disease states can cause ischemic problems that lead to life-threatening complications, including:
Heart Disease Treatment
Cardiovascular disease can be brought on by a number of contributing factors, thus a number of medications may be prescribed to help treat symptoms and prevent disease progression. The types of treatment vary from person to person and depend on severity of the disease. Certain laboratory goals are usually established in order to monitor progress. These typically include:
The first and most important part of treatment for anyone with cardiovascular disease is changes in lifestyle to promote a healthy heart. This includes eating a heart healthy diet low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, exercising at least 30 minutes most days of the week, quitting smoking and limiting alcohol consumption.
A number of medications are prescribed to help control heart disease including:
If medications aren’t enough, surgery may be recommended to clear blockages. These include angioplasty and stent placement, coronary artery bypass surgery and minimally invasive heart surgery.
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