Heart Disease: Know your risk and how to take action

Heart disease remains one of the most significant health challenges globally, affecting millions each year. Despite advancements in medical science, the prevalence and impact of heart disease are alarming, highlighting a critical need for increased public awareness and education. Here we will further explore the complex nature of heart disease, its various forms, causes, symptoms, and prevention strategies, to empower you with knowledge to identify your risk and seek help from a medical professional.

What is Heart Disease?

Heart disease refers to range of cardiovascular conditions, which include (1):

  • Coronary artery disease: Involving the buildup of plaque in the heart’s arteries, leading to reduced blood flow.
  • Heart rhythm disorders (arrhythmias): Conditions causing irregular heartbeats, which can range from harmless to potentially serious.
  • Heart infections: Often a result of bacteria, viruses, or parasites infecting the heart.
  • Congenital heart defects: Structural problems with the heart present from birth.

In Australia, heart disease is a significant public health concern. It accounts for 25% of all deaths, with an estimated 1.2 million Australians living with one or more heart or vascular conditions (2). Every day, approximately 118 Australians die due to heart disease; however, a significant proportion of heart disease-related fatalities could potentially be prevented with early detection and timely intervention (3). Early detection allows for the management of risk factors and the treatment of conditions that could lead to heart disease, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes.

What Causes Heart Disease?

Heart disease is usually caused by a combination of lifestyle, environmental and genetic factors. Key contributors include (4,5,6):

Lifestyle Factors:

  • Diet: High intake of saturated fats, trans fats, and sodium, often from ultra-processed foods such as biscuits, baked goods, deli meats, takeaways and convenience meals.
  • Physical Inactivity: Leading to obesity and associated risks.
  • Smoking: A primary risk factor for coronary artery disease.

Chronic Conditions:

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure): Straining the heart and leading to heart disease.
  • Hyperlipidemia: High cholesterol levels causing plaque buildup.
  • Diabetes: Damaging arteries and leading to cardiovascular complications.

Environmental and Other Factors:

  • Air Pollution: Linked to various heart conditions by causing inflammation and oxidative stress
  • Chronic Stress: Affecting heart health through physiological responses.
  • Sleep Patterns: Inadequate sleep impacting overall heart health.

Genetics and Family History:

  • Genetic factors increase susceptibility to heart disease.

Demographic Factors:

  • Age: Increasing risk, particularly in older adults.
  • Gender: Higher risk in men, but increasing in women post-menopause.
  • Ethnicity: Higher predisposition in certain groups, including Indigenous Australians, South Asians, and African Americans, due to genetic, environmental, and socioeconomic factors.

What are the Symptoms of Heart Disease?

Recognising the symptoms of heart disease is crucial for early intervention. Common signs include (7):

  • Chest pain or discomfort: Often the most notable symptom, manifesting as aching, pressure, or tightness in the chest.
  • Palpitations (Arrhythmias): An irregular heartbeat feeling like a fluttering or racing heart.
  • Shortness of breath: Indicative of potential heart failure or coronary artery disease.

Less common symptoms include:

  • Fatigue: Unusual and persistent tiredness can be a sign of heart disease, particularly in women. It can occur due to reduced blood flow from a weakened heart muscle.
  • Swelling of Feet, Ankles, Legs, or Abdomen: Known as edema, this swelling can be a sign of heart failure, a condition where the heart does not pump blood as effectively as it should.
  • Dizziness or Lightheadedness: These symptoms can occur if the heart is not pumping enough blood to the brain. It can also be a sign of arrhythmia or narrowed arteries.
  • Cough or Wheezing: Persistent coughing or wheezing can be a symptom of heart failure, resulting from fluid buildup in the lungs.
  • Nausea or Lack of Appetite: These symptoms can be associated with heart diseases, especially if accompanied by abdominal pain or discomfort.
  • Pain in Other Parts of the Body: Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the left shoulder, elbows, jaw, or back can be a sign of a heart attack.
  • Snoring or Sleep Apnea: While snoring is common, excessively loud snoring that includes gasping or choking can be a sign of sleep apnea, a risk factor for heart disease.
  • Excessive Sweating: Sweating more than usual, especially if you aren’t exerting yourself, can be an early warning sign of heart problems.
  • Indigestion or Heartburn: These can sometimes be symptoms of a heart attack or other heart issues, particularly if accompanied by other symptoms.

Symptoms also often present differently between men and women (8):

  • Men often experience more pronounced chest pain.
  • Women may report more subtle symptoms like fatigue, nausea, and back or jaw pain.

It’s crucial to remember that these symptoms can have multiple causes and don’t necessarily mean that a person has heart disease. However, if you have these symptoms, especially if they are new or have changed in character, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional for a proper evaluation. Early detection and treatment of heart disease can significantly improve outcomes.

How to Prevent Heart Disease?

Effective prevention and management of heart disease involve a comprehensive approach, which may involve changes to lifestyle habits, such as (9):

  • Diet: Following a Mediterranean-style diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, has been shown to improve cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the body (10,11).

  • Exercise: Regular exercise strengthens the heart muscle, improving its ability to pump blood more efficiently. This can help reduce the workload on the heart and improve overall cardiac function (12). Frequent physical activity has also been shown to lower blood pressure by an average of 5 to 8mmHg, which is great news for those with high blood pressure (13).

  • Smoking: Cessation is crucial for reducing heart disease risk, as regular smoking damages blood vessels, causes inflammation and increases blood pressure (14).

Checking in with your general practitioner for regular health screenings is particularly important if you are over the age of 50. Regular monitoring of blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels, and managing existing conditions like hypertension and diabetes, with the help of a health professional can help reduce your risk of heart disease.

Conclusion

Heart disease is complex in nature, and presents in many subtle ways. Awareness, lifestyle changes, and regular health checks are key to preventing and managing heart disease risks. If you have identified certain risk factors or symptoms, make sure you speak to a qualified practitioner to assist you in making the necessary diet and lifestyle changes for your health.

How we reviewed this article:
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