Heart Disease 101

Special Heart Health Section

By Brian Beise

Full PDF here.

What is heart disease? 

The term heart disease does not refer to one condition, but to an array of problems that can occur in the heart. Everything from diseases of the blood vessels to heart rhythm problems to congenital heart defects falls underneath this umbrella term. Frequently, however, the term “heart disease” is used interchangeably with “cardiovascular disease,” which refers to conditions that involve narrow or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, chest pain (angina), or stroke.

Some staggering statistics 

If you want to truly understand the reach of heart disease, just look at the facts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC reports that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States—nearly 1 in 3 deaths is caused by heart disease and stroke. Perhaps even more shocking, at least 200,000 of those annual deaths are considered preventable.

Am I at risk? 

The American Heart Association separates major risk factors for heart disease into two categories: those that can’t be changed, and those that you can modify, treat, or control by changing your lifestyle and taking medicine. The first category includes increasing age (men over 45 and women over 55), genetics, and family history. The second category includes smoking, high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, being overweight or obese, and diabetes.

If you have risk factors in the first category, it becomes even more important to manage and control the ones in the second. Weight loss, exercise, diet, quitting smoking, reducing stress, and having yourself regularly screened can all significantly decrease your chances of suffering from heart disease.

Heart Attack 101

The technical name for a heart attack is myocardial infarction. Essentially, it is a partial heart failure. During the event, loss of blood flow to one part of the heart causes an oxygen deficiency and muscle tissue begins to die.

According to the American Heart Association, symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • chest discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or chest pain that goes away and comes back
  • discomfort in other areas of the upper body, such as the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort
  • a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness

Stroke 101

A stroke is sometimes referred to as a cerebral vascular accident. Most strokes are ischemic, meaning, they occur when the arteries to the brain have become narrowed or blocked (usually by a blood clot).

Strokes usually come on suddenly. Typical symptoms include: numbness or weakness of the face, arm and/or leg, confusion, trouble speaking or difficulty understanding speech, difficulty seeing in one or both eyes, trouble walking, and severe headache. The National Stroke Association offers the FAST test for identifying a stroke:

Face – Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
Arms – Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
Speech – Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence. Does the speech sound slurred or strange?
Time – If you observe any of these signs, call 911 immediately.

Taking time to understand heart issues can go a long way in ensuring you don’t fall prey to one of them. Read on to learn about different kinds of heart disease, how to spot them, and—best of all—how to prevent them. 

Strokes and heart attacks are medical emergencies and should be treated at the onset of symptoms. If you suspect either one, don’t wait to call 9-1-1. Emergency medical services staff can begin treatment when they arrive—sooner than if someone gets to the hospital by car.

For more information
on heart disease and
heart health, visit:

heart.org from the American Heart Association (AHA)
cardiosmart.org from the American College of Cardiology
goredforwomen.org from the AHA’s Go Red for Women campaign
nhlbi.nih.gov the website of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute
strokeassociation.org the website of the American Stroke Association