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Heart disease is still the No. 1 cause of death for adults in the U.S. Here's what you need to know.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S. In fact, one person dies every 34 seconds in the country from heart disease, which was responsible for one in every five deaths in 2020. But despite how common —and deadly — heart disease is, many people don't know all that much about it. "Heart disease is any problem that takes place in the heart," Dr. Columbus Batiste, a cardiologist with Kaiser Permanente, tells Yahoo Life. "That could mean the arteries, it could mean the electrical system, it could mean the pump. So just like your car, you have different aspects to the heart that can run into problems." Heart disease affects men and women, but it disproportionately impacts communities of color, Batiste says. It also tends to happen alongside other illnesses. "Heart disease ... often runs with high blood pressure, it runs with diabetes, it runs with high cholesterol, it runs with inactivity, it runs with stress, which impacts so many Americans," he says. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says one of the largest groups affected by heart disease is 65 and older. But Batiste says that heart disease "sneaks up on you," making it important to have some awareness of this serious illness. So, what are the signs of heart disease to look out for? Here's what you need to know.
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There are some big differences in the way men and women experience heart disease. And doctors say knowing and understanding those differences could help save your life.
#1 Risk factors Whether you’re a man or a woman, there are several risk factors for heart disease that impact both sexes equally. Among those are tobacco use, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity and lack of physical activity. But for women, doctors say there are additional risk factors and warning signs to watch out for. Dr. Sheila Sahni, an interventional cardiologist and the director of the women’s heart program at Sahni Heart Center in Clark, New Jersey, tells Yahoo Life, “Factors unique to women include autoimmune conditions, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, a history of breast cancer and having received chemotherapy or radiation therapy to the chest, as well as psychiatric issues such as depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness.” Sahni also says pregnancy can serve as a woman’s first cardiac stress test. “Conditions such as gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, preeclampsia – if you had them when you were pregnant, they can actually affect your chances of developing heart disease long after your pregnancy is over.” #2 Signs and symptoms Because women were excluded from early heart disease studies, many of our ideas about what a heart attack victim looks like come from the male perspective. “When men present with heart attacks, they tend to present similar to how we've seen it depicted in Hollywood – crushing chest pain in the center of their chest or their jaw clenching,” explains Sahni. “But when it comes to a woman, the signs and symptoms can be a lot more subtle.” Women experiencing a heart attack may feel a shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea or even heartburn. These less dramatic symptoms cause women to wait more than 30 percent longer than men before they head to the hospital. And once there, women are less likely to be properly diagnosed. Sahni advises women that “any new symptom between the navel and the nose that comes on with exertion, whether physical or emotional, and goes away with rest, needs to get checked out right away by a doctor.” #3 Causes and effects The reason why heart attacks in men tend to be more dramatic can be attributed to what’s going on inside the body. Sahni says male heart attack patients typically suffer a full blockage within the heart’s blood vessels, abruptly stopping the flow of blood to the heart. In contrast, when a woman has a heart attack, it often stems from a slow deterioration of the arteries. “So if you imagine a scenario of pipes, if a pipe is fully clogged, that creates a dramatic backup,” says Sahni. “But if a pipe slowly erodes over time, the presentation might be more subtle.” But no matter what your gender is, Sahni says knowing your risk factors, signs and symptoms is key to staying heart healthy. “Knowledge is power,” says Sahni. “Educate yourself so you can be your own heart hero and prevent heart disease in your own life.”
Would you know the warning signs of heart failure if it was happening to you or someone you love? Experts say these are the signs to pay attention to.
Symptom #1: Shortness of breath Everyone gets winded once in a while, but people who might be developing heart failure experience shortness of breath that’s a bit different. Dr. Nicole Harkin, a preventive cardiologist and founder of Whole Heart Cardiology in San Francisco, tells Yahoo Life that when the heart cannot pump blood properly, the blood starts to back up, causing congestion and fluid buildup in the lungs. She says these patients may feel breathless while performing normal daily activities that they “used to be able to do easily,” such as walking or climbing stairs Symptom #2: Feeling fatigued Heart failure also impacts the heart’s ability to pump enough oxygen to the muscles within your body. Without the right amount of oxygen, those muscles can get worn out quickly. “People with heart failure often notice that they're experiencing fatigue or extreme exhaustion,” explains Harkin. “This is because the heart isn't able to meet the metabolic demands of the body.” Symptom #3: Abnormal swelling As blood flow from the heart slows, over time, it can back up in your veins. “The pressure from this backup causes fluid to accumulate in the soft tissues of the legs, as well as sometimes in the abdomen,” explains Harkin. This buildup of excess fluid in body tissues is called edema and is another indication of heart failure. “How you can check for swelling in your legs is by touching your finger on your shin,” Harkin instructs. “If you notice that you can really see the [deep] imprint of your finger, that's called pitting edema and may be a sign of heart failure. Talk to your doctor if you notice this.”
Check out these three easy, expert-recommended steps to improve your heart health — one you can even do lying down.
Need some inspiration? Check out these three easy-to-digest steps to improve your heart health. #1 Pay attention to what’s on your plate One simple way to get to a healthier weight and also keep your heart healthy is by taking a look at your diet — starting with cutting back on the amount of meat you eat. “If you're currently eating meat at most meals, I would start by trying to have meatless Mondays,” Dr. Nicole Harkin, a preventive cardiologist and founder of Whole Heart Cardiology in San Francisco, tells Yahoo Life. “Consider something like eggplant, cauliflower, tofu — all of which really sub well for meat products.” #2 Get up and move The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of activity per week, that’s about 20 minutes per day. Take a walk, climb some stairs or mix in some weights. “While there's lots of evidence about aerobic activity and the benefit on heart health, there's increasing evidence that strength training is also really good for our hearts,” says Harkin. “Strength training can either be dynamic resistance training like weightlifting or isometric training, which is like a plank.” #3 Just sleep on it Harkin says when you’re sleep deprived or experience fragmented sleep, it can increase inflammation and create higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. To get the recommended seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night, Harkin suggests that you set goals and stick to them. “Have some sort of sleep regularity, just like having a set bedtime routine for our kids,” she suggests. “Dim the lights a few hours before bed. Try not to have anything to eat two to three hours before you go to sleep. Also limit blue light before sleeping. All of these things can help our bodies set the stage for good quality sleep.”
What you eat has a direct impact on your heart health. The good news: Making small, easy changes to your diet can go a long way to protect your heart.
“Nutrition is probably the most powerful thing you can do to prevent and treat coronary heart disease,” Sonya Angelone, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Yahoo Life. “There’s a lot of good research that says if you eat in a certain way that you can significantly decrease your risk for heart attack.” Some of the easiest and most affordable items to add to your menu are fruits and vegetables. “Plants have amazing health benefits,” Dr. Taz Bhatia, a board-certified physician specializing in immune support and wellness, tells Yahoo Life. They contain antioxidants, such as vitamins A, B and C, which help keep your arteries free of plaque buildup. “I know how hard this is, but kicking table salt is one of the keys to preventing heart disease,” says Bhatia. The popular seasoning actually constricts your blood vessels and in turn, decreases the amount of blood and oxygen that gets to your heart. But it’s not just the salt shaker sitting on your table that’s the problem — the biggest sodium threats are found in processed foods such as breads, pizzas and fast food sandwiches. Some of these foods contain more than 100 percent of the 2,300 milligrams of sodium that’s recommended per day. To ease the pain of reducing your intake of some of your favorite processed foods, treat yourself to some dark chocolate. Varieties with at least 70 percent cacao help your body release nitric oxide. This powerful compound actually relaxes blood vessels and keeps them flexible. Just be sure you check the label to see if the chocolate has been processed with alkali