Understanding Heart Disease

StethoscopeWhat is heart disease? For most of us, what we know about heart disease was learned from popular literature and watching our favorite medical shows on television (ER, House, Grey’s Anatomy, etc.). We know that high cholesterol is bad, although even physicians differ on this issue, and many of us get confused between HDL and LDL (which is the good one again?).

We’ve heard many of the terms, but have little understanding of what they mean and the risk that they pose for a heart attack or stroke.

Cardiovascular System

The cardiovascular system consists of:

  • The heart, which is the electrical and mechanical pump
  • The valves, which are the doors that open and close to let blood in and out
  • The arteries, capillaries, and veins are what we call the plumbing

Ninety percent of the time, when people have cardiovascular disease, it turns out to be a plumbing problem.

The heart is that essential life force that has for centuries been thought of as an almost mythical importance in our lives. While the brain may be the control center of the human body, the heart is the engine, continually pumping blood through our bodies.

  • The heart beats 100,000 times every day.
  • It pumps over 10,000 quarts of blood through 60,000 miles of blood vessels every day.
  • The heart pumps returning blood through the lung capillaries where waste and gas (primarily carbon dioxide) is expelled and fresh oxygen is taken up by the blood.
  • The heart’s main purpose is an oxygen delivery system. We can live a month without food, a week without water, but we can only live three minutes without oxygen. Oxygen is our most important macronutrient!

Heart disease refers, obviously, to diseases that affect the heart. Cardiovascular disease encompasses all the pathways to and from the heart: the veins, arteries, and millions of tiny capillaries, all of which are susceptible to disease.

Major Heart and Cardiovascular Diseases

Angina Pectoris

Characterized by crushing chest pain, commonly felt after exertion or after a large meal. An attack can also be brought on by severe emotional stress. It is the symptom of a lack of adequate oxygen being provided to the heart that causes this severe pain. Many patients use nitroglycerin tablets to manage their condition as needed.

Known by its common term, Heart Attack, a myocardial infarction occurs when a coronary artery is blocked by a blood clot. This results in the heart muscle actually dying due to the lack of oxygen and blood flow. Permanent damage begins within twenty minutes and the affected portion of the heart may be completely dead within six to eight hours. Heart attack generally tops the list of worries for those of us with multiple risk factors, and with good reason; every 33 seconds someone dies from a heart attack.

Heart Attack Did you know?

  • Every 33 seconds a person dies from a heart attack
  • One million lives lost per year
  • 7.9 million people in America have already survived a heart attack
  • Nearly nine million Americans have angina
  • It is estimated that over 1.2 million people will have a heart attack this year, and just under half of those people won’t survive
  • 66% of Americans are either overweight or obese
  • 40 million Americans smoke
  • Almost 40 million men and women in America have high cholesterol

Statistics from the American Heart Association


Stroke is to the brain what a heart attack is to the body. Brain cells are damaged when their blood supply and oxygen are cut off. Ischemic Stroke is caused by a blockage in a blood vessel, and Hemorrhagic Stroke is a result of a ruptured blood vessel. The result may be severe brain damage or death. Survivors of stroke often experience a long list of life altering complications.

Congestive Heart Failure

Often associated with the elderly and is commonly the final condition that brings on death. It occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood to all the body’s organs and the body becomes congested with slow moving blood.

Atherosclerosis and Arteriosclerosis

Deterioration of the elasticity of the blood vessels.

Atherosclerosis refers to plaque in the inner lining of the arteries, also known as the endothelium. Healthy arteries are shiny and smooth like Teflon and nothing sticks to them. Below is a picture of a healthy artery and a picture of an artery with plaque.

Damage to the artery results in platelets becoming stuck to the artery wall and building up over time. Fatty deposits and calcium also build up along the endothelium, further restricting the easy flow of blood through the vessels. The healthy artery can carry a normal amount of blood, which means it can deliver oxygen. The plaqued artery can carry very little oxygen enriched blood and the sensor at the other end starts telling the heart “we’re not getting enough oxygen,” so the heart starts working harder. This then becomes a vicious cycle. When our blood vessels are blocked, serious consequences such as stroke and heart attack may occur. Without testing, you may not even be aware that you have atherosclerosis until you have a medical emergency.

Commonly known as hardening of the arteries, Arteriosclerosis occurs when the arteries lose their natural elasticity either through the natural aging process or due to other risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking. Family history is also a risk factor in arteriosclerosis.

Peripheral Vascular Disease

Refers to diseases of the blood vessels not directly related to the brain or heart. Common areas affected are the arms, legs, stomach or kidneys. A build-up of fatty deposits blocks appropriate blood flow to these areas.

Chronic Kidney Disease

Differs from acute kidney disease and failure in that the chronic condition develops slowly over time and gets progressively worse. Even with treatment, chronic kidney disease can progress and is usually caused by high blood pressure and atherosclerosis.

While we may not link vision problems to our cardiovascular system, the eyes can be seriously damaged by untreated high blood pressure and Hypertensive Retinopathy can develop.

Erectile Dysfunction

May conjure up images of little blue pills and embarrassing commercials, but it may also be a warning sign to men of an underlying cardiovascular condition. The prevalence of prescription drugs used to treat erectile dysfunction (ED) simply masks what may be a problem in the cardiovascular system. The root cause may be a reduction in nitric oxide produced in the lining of the blood vessels throughout the body, not just the genital area.

Heart Attack – Did you know?

  • Heart attacks are so common in the U.S. that 7.2 million Americans in their twenties have a history of a heart attack.
  • According to doctor’s findings a heart attack among Type A personalities (impatient, hostile or angry) is 2.2 times higher than in Type B (relaxed, calm and enjoy a variety of activities).
  • Stress and grief make the body vulnerable to a gamut of diseases, including heart disease, cancer and depression, and play a role in the development of heart attacks.
  • There are certain situations when you are most likely to suffer a heart attack:
  • Soon after you wake up: Wake up and get out of bed slowly.
  • During periods of heavy physical activity or soon after: You should exercise regularly so that your heart is not strained during activities that require greater exertion.
  • During periods of great emotional trauma or soon after.
  • During angry outbursts or soon after: A solution is to take one aspirin a day to reduce the risk related to a body’s reaction to anger that causes the likeliness of a blood clot. Nattokinase and proteolytic enzymes also work well and don’t have the problems associated with gastrointestinal distress that some people have with aspirin. Also, make it a priority to learn to relax and cope with your anger in other ways.
  • Contraceptive pills alone are unlikely to cause a heart attack in women. But, in combination with even one risk factor, contraceptive pills used for several years can trigger a heart attack.