Heart disease is often associated with people who have previously experienced heart attacks, but the truth is that the term "heart disease" refers to several types of heart conditions. The most common forms include coronary artery disease (CAD), arrhythmia, heart valve disease and heart failure. It's important to understand the different causes and symptoms of heart disease so you can align your diet and lifestyle with heart health in mind.
Information changes quickly with how rapidly the science around heart disease improves, which is why it's essential to stay up-to-date on the latest medical advice for heart health. For instance, in 2017 the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology updated the heart healthy range for blood pressure to 120/80 mm Hg. The previous figure for normal blood pressure — 130/80 mm Hg — is now considered elevated and should be treated with lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medication.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of heart disease can help you stay one step ahead. By taking preventative action, you can greatly reduce the risk of heart disease. Below are a few indicators that can be measured and tracked at home or with your doctor:
- Blood pressure: When you experience high blood pressure, your blood puts additional strain on your artery walls as it moves through the body. High blood pressure can damage blood vessels and lead to an increased risk of heart disease. The healthy blood pressure range is between 120/80 mm Hg and 90/60 mm Hg.
- Blood sugar: This reading indicates whether or not your body is processing blood sugar — also called blood glucose — properly. Regular blood sugar monitoring is among the most important things you can do to manage type 1 or type 2 diabetes. This is an important indicator to monitor because having diabetes makes you twice as likely to develop heart disease. A fasting blood sugar level of 99 mg/dL or lower is normal, 100 to 125 mg/dL indicates you have prediabetes, and 126 mg/dL or higher indicates you have diabetes.
- Cholesterol: Cholesterol is a waxy substance that helps your body build healthy cells, but high levels can increase your risk of heart disease. High cholesterol can lead to fatty deposits in the blood vessels, making it difficult for enough blood to flow through your arteries. This can eventually lead to a heart attack or stroke. Healthy adults should have their cholesterol checked with a doctor every four to six years. If your LDL cholesterol — often called “bad” cholesterol — is 190 or more, it is considered very high.
- Body weight: This indicator consists of two different standards – body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference. Normal body weight is represented by a BMI of 25 or less. A patient with a BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight. Anything 30 and above indicates obesity. Waist circumference is considered normal at 35 inches or smaller for women and 40 inches or smaller for men. If you are overweight, you're more likely to develop conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes that can lead to heart disease.
Metabolic syndrome is a group of five conditions that increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and other health problems. According to the American Heart Association, having three or more of the following symptoms will result in a metabolic syndrome diagnosis:
- High blood pressure
- High blood sugar
- Low levels of HDL ("good cholesterol")
- High levels of triglycerides
- Large waist circumference
All of these health problems can be reduced or avoided through each of the following:
- Regular physical activity
- Healthy diet
- Weight loss
- Quitting smoking
- Reducing stress
Pinning down symptoms of heart disease without the help of a medical professional can be difficult because they often closely relate to symptoms of other health problems. While there are a number of lifestyle changes you can make to prevent or delay serious health problems, the most important thing you can do is make an appointment with your primary care doctor. They will be able to help you understand exactly what you need to do to prevent or reduce the effects of heart disease. If you don't have a primary doctor we can help. Click here to find a doctor that's right for you, or to make an appointment today.
This article first appeared in the February 2022 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.