According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States.
- One person dies every 36 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease.
- About 659,000 people in the United States die from heart disease each year—that’s 1 in every 4 deaths (Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics 2021 Report: American Heart Association).
Men, women and, more rarely, children experience heart disease. In the United States, more men and women die from it than from any other cause.
Coronary Artery Disease (Clogged Arteries) the Leading Cause
In adults, the most common heart problem is coronary artery disease. It can create blockages in the vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood to the heart.
Blockages can cut off this blood supply, possibly leading to a heart attack.
In children, heart failure usually results from defects present at birth. Other causes include enlargement of the heart, which is frequently inherited, and diseases of the heart muscle. Coronary artery disease is very rare in children.
Heart Attacks Can Look Different in Men and Women
Tracey Stevens, MD, Cardiologist, Mid America Heart Institute
In the movies, a man having a heart attack grabs his chest and collapses. This image has led to the term “Hollywood heart attack,” where a man reacts to the intense pressure and pain. But that kind of pain does not happen as often in women, so they might not know they are having a heart attack, and they might wait too long to seek treatment. The delay is an important reason more women than men die from a heart attack.
Women can experience heart attack symptoms such as shortness of breath, indigestion, nausea and vomiting, jaw pain, elbow pain and overwhelming fatigue, says Tracey Stevens, MD, a cardiologist with MidAmerica Heart Institute. For women, “any symptom from the waist up can be a heart attack,” she says. Men, too, can have these symptoms, but they are more likely than women to experience the crushing chest pain.
Dr. Stevens adds that the leading cause of heart attacks in women under 50 is not coronary artery disease but a coronary artery dissection, or tear in the artery wall. Nine out of 10 coronary artery dissections occur in women. They commonly happen post-partum (after giving birth) and can be the result of a genetic abnormality or uncontrolled high blood pressure.
Heart Attack First Aid
Ammar Habib, MD, Interventional Cardiologist, AdventHealth Shawnee Mission
If you or someone around you experiences a heart attack, the first thing to do is call 911. “Don’t feel bad about calling 911,” says Ammar Habib, MD, an interventional cardiologist with AdventHealth Shawnee Mission. “The faster you get care, the better you’re going to do.”
Perhaps the most important thing you can do in case of a heart attack is know the symptoms, both severe and more subtle, Dr. Habib says. Even if the symptoms seem less dramatic, call 911. Minutes matter. While the ambulance is on the way, you can take some action. Dr. Habib recommends that the person experiencing the heart attack:
- Have people around to help
- Sit down and rest to reduce pressure on the heart.
- Take aspirin
- If you have been prescribed nitroglycerin and have already taken one, wait a few minutes and if the pain continues, take one more.
If a defibrillator is available, it can determine whether a shock is needed to restore heart rhythm. The machine guides the user through the process.
What to Expect from a Heart Checkup
Gautam Desai, DO, Professor and Chair, Department of Primary Care, Kansas City University
Primary care doctors make heart health part of any physical exam. If you’re over 20 and symptom-free, your doctor will take your health history and check your blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure, among other factors, and also use a risk calculator to assess your risk of heart disease. Your doctor will use information to determine if you need further testing.
Gautam Desai, DO, Professor and Chair of the Department of Primary Care at Kansas City University, says that family history is the most important risk factor. For example, he says, “Fainting is a red flag.” It is important that your doctor know whether you or anyone in your family has experienced fainting. Physical exams and testing can make a real difference if you take the results to heart and follow your doctor’s advice concerning your lifestyle. As Dr. Desai puts it, “Most people can change their future and live longer with diet and exercise.”
What you can do to support a heart-healthy life
The best thing you can do to keep your heart healthy is to take charge of its care. Get regular checkups, be aware of the symptoms that signal a heart problem, eat healthy foods, exercise and stop smoking. This is the formula for a healthier and longer life.
Sources: health.gov/myhealthfinder/topics/health-conditions/heart-health/keep-your-heart-healthy, MedlinePlus, National Institutes of Health
Tips for Keeping Your Heart Healthy
Reimagining heart-healthy living means not ignoring symptoms but knowing your risk of heart disease and taking steps to keep your heart in shape. Here are some recommendations.
Know Your Cardiac Disease Risk Factors
Some people are more likely to develop heart disease than others.
The risk factors include:
- Family history of heart disease
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Too little physical activity
- Unhealthy diet
- Over age 55 for women and 45 for men
Of course, having these risk factors does not mean you will have heart disease or a heart attack.
However, they are an added incentive to take care of your heart health.
Follow These Heart-healthy Guidelines
It is not hard to live a heart-healthy lifestyle, but you do need to pay attention to a few suggestions:
- Have your cholesterol checked every five years, at least; and more frequently when elevated
- Regularly check your blood pressure; know your numbers
- Ask your doctor if you should take aspirin daily
- Learn about any family history of heart problems
- Adopt healthy eating habits with foods that are low in saturated fats, salt and sugar and high in fiber
- Use moderation when drinking alcohol
- Get exercise, such as walking or bicycling, that raises your heart rate for at least 150 minutes a week
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Do not smoke or be around second-hand smoke
- Reduce stress