The Heart Basics

A quick primer on words and phrases you may hear from your heath care practitioner:

What is cardiovascular disease?

Cardiovascular disease, also known as heart disease, includes diseases of the heart and blood vessels. This includes stroke, peripheral vascular disease, coronary heart disease, hypertensive disease and others. Heart and blood vessel problems develop over time and occur when arteries that supply blood to the heart or brain slowly become clogged from a buildup of cells, fat and cholesterol. This buildup is called plaque. When the blood flow becomes blocked by extensive amounts of plaque or a blood clot, a heart attack or stroke could result.

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the term used to describe disease of the arteries that feed the heart muscle. It's the most common form of heart disease.

What is heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to the part of the heart muscle called the myocardium becomes severely reduced or stopped. If the blood supply is cut off for more than a few minutes, muscle cells suffer irreversible injury and die. Disability or death can result, depending on the extent of heart muscle damage.

What is sudden cardiac arrest?

Sudden cardiac arrest is caused by an electrical problem in the heart. It begins as a dangerously fast heartbeat that accelerates and makes an ineffective pump, unable to supply the body and brain with oxygen. About 95 percent of cardiac arrest victims die before they get to the hospital.

What is peripheral vascular disease?

Peripheral vascular disease (PVD) includes diseases of blood vessels outside of the heart and brain; it's often caused by a narrowing of the vessels that carry blood to leg and/or arm muscles.

What is carotid artery disease?

Carotid artery disease occurs when the carotid arteries that carry blood to the brain are blocked by plaque. This prevents the brain from receiving enough oxygen-rich blood and may lead to a stroke.

What is an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA)?

This is a weakened part of a major artery that carries blood to the legs and other areas of the lower body. The ballooning of this weakened area is a serious condition. If the force of the blood flow is too much for the blood vessel, it could rupture (burst) like an over-inflated inner tube. The risk of rupture increases with the size of the aneurysm. This is often a fatal condition.

What is heart failure?

Heart failure is a condition in which the heart cannot pump enough blood to the body's other organs because the heart muscle is damaged or overworked. Heart failure may be a result of:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart Attack
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart valve disease
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Congenital heart disease (heart or blood vessel defects present at birth)
  • Infection of the heart valves
  • Infection of the heart muscle

What is a stroke?

Lack of blood flow to the brain due to a blood vessel rupture or blockage leads to a stroke. The resulting brain damage may be very serious, causing:

  • Paralysis, numbness or tingling on one side of the body
  • Confusion, difficulty speaking or understanding
  • Loss of vision in one or both eyes
  • Difficulty walking
  • Drooping of one side of the face

What is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is rapid irregular electrical activity of the upper chambers of the heart, called the atria.

What is metabolic syndrome?

An association between certain metabolic disorders and cardiovascular disease is termed metabolic syndrome. The main features of metabolic syndrome include insulin resistance, hypertension (high blood pressure), cholesterol abnormalities, and an increased risk for the blood to clot. Patients are most often overweight or obese.

Insulin resistance refers to the diminished ability of cells to respond to the action of insulin in promoting the transport of the sugar glucose, from blood into muscles and other tissues. If you have multiple risk factors for heart disease, talk with your health care practitioner to determine ways to lower your risk.

How is metabolic syndrome defined?

Any three of the following traits in the same individual meet the criteria for the metabolic syndrome:

  • Abdominal obesity: a waist circumference more than 40 inches in men and more than 35 inches in women.
  • Serum triglycerides 150 mg/dL or above, or taking medicine for high triglycerides.
  • HDL cholesterol 40 mg/dL or lower in men and 50 mg/dl or lower in women, or taking medicine for low HDL cholesterol.
  • Blood pressure of 130/80 mgHG or above, or diastolic pressure of 85 mmHg or higher, or taking medicine for high blood pressure.
  • Fasting blood glucose of greater than or equal to 100 mg/dL or above, or taking medicine for high blood glucose.

How common is metabolic syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome is quite common. Approximately 20-30 percent of the population in industrialized countries have metabolic syndrome. it is estimated that approximately 47 million adults in the United States have it.

As is true with many medical conditions, genetics and the environment both play important roles in the development of the metabolic syndrome. Genetic factors influence each individual component of the syndrome, and the syndrome itself. A family history that includes Type 2 Diabetes, hypertension, and early heart disease greatly increases the change that an individual will develop the metabolic syndrome.

Environmental issues like lack of regular physical activity and progressive While obesity itself is likely the greatest risk factor, other factors of concern include:

  • Women who are post-menopausal
  • Smoking
  • Eating an excessively high carbohydrate diet
  • Lack of activity (even without weight change)

Why should I know about metabolic syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome is worth caring about because it's a condition that can pave the way to both diabetes and heart disease, two of the most common and important chronic diseases today.

Metabolic syndrome increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes (the common type of diabetes)anywhere from 9-30 times over the normal population. That's a significant increase. Although studies vary, the metabolic syndrome appears to increase the risk of heart disease 2-4 times that of the normal population.

There term "metabolic syndrome" is a way of identifying individuals at high risk for the development of heart disease and diabetes. Intuitively we know that obesity, high cholesterol, and hypertension are bad omens. We also know that insulin resistance precedes Type 2 diabetes, and can itself be an important condition meriting treatment. Everyone reading this handbook knows someone who is overweight, hypertensive, or has cholesterol levels that are "a little high." It may be a brother, sister, parent neighbor or even yourself.

The main point to understand is the importance of treating the risk factors before heart disease develops. Lifestyle changes can be addressed at a doctor's office. The other 99.999 percent of the time, they need to be addressed in the real world. We need to start having healthier food options readily available We need to make time during the day to take a walk.

We need to surround ourselves with people who support our goals and needs. We need to be aware of our own health and to make whatever changes we can to improve it.

The final take-home message is: 

  • Find a walking buddy.
  • Take a walk during your break, even if it's just around the building.
  • Go to a health food store.
  • Look at what you feed your kids.
  • Urge your kids to go outside and play.

It all adds up. Preventing metabolic syndrome really means having a healthy lifestyle.

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