Causes and Risks of Heart Disease

Written by Erica Roth | Published on August 12, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on August 12, 2014

Causes and Risks of Heart Disease

Heart disease is an illness that you will live with for the rest of your life. You may not show symptoms of the disease at certain times. Heart disease is sometimes called “coronary heart disease” or “CHD.” It is the leading cause of death among adults in the United States, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). If you learn about the causes and risk factors of the disease, you may avoid heart problems that cause death.

Causes of Heart Disease

Heart disease occurs when the arteries and blood vessels that lead to the heart are blocked or not carrying blood correctly. When this happens, important nutrients, such as oxygen, cannot reach your heart. Arteries and blood vessels can be blocked because of medical conditions and lifestyle choices, including:

High cholesterol creates plaque. Plaque is a waxy substance that gathers in your blood vessels and slows the passing of nutrients to your heart. Nicotine can keep your heart from receiving oxygen and causes your blood vessels to narrow.

If your blood pressure and cholesterol are at normal levels, you may slow or even stop the development of heart disease. If you adjust your lifestyle by exercising and following a healthy diet, you may reduce your risk factors for heart disease. Talk to your doctor about developing an exercise routine and diet that’s appropriate for your age, weight, and overall health.

Risk Factors

Several risk factors play an important role in determining whether or not you’re likely to develop heart disease. Two of these factors, age and heredity, are out of your control. The risk of CHD increases around the age of 55 in women and 45 in men. Your risk may be greater if you have close family members who have a history of heart disease. Family history is just one piece in the heart disease puzzle, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

If you lead a healthy lifestyle, you can minimize the following risks:

  • obesity
  • insulin resistance or diabetes
  • high cholesterol and blood pressure

Talk with your doctor or a nutritionist to learn how to have a more heart-healthy diet. Eating fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help you reach your ideal weight and stabilize your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels. Your doctor can help you quit smoking and suggest ways for you to become more active in a way that’s safe for your condition.

>Link Between Heart Disease and Diabetes

The link between heart disease and diabetes may mean serious health problems for some people. The National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC) estimates that people with diabetes, and especially those who have reached middle age, have twice the possibility of experiencing heart disease or stroke as people who do not have diabetes. Adults with diabetes tend to have heart attacks at a younger age and are more likely to experience more heart attacks if they have insulin resistance or high blood glucose levels.

The reason for this is the relationship between glucose and blood vessel health. High blood glucose levels that aren’t managed can increase the amount of plaque that forms within the walls of the blood vessels, hindering or stopping the flow of blood to the heart.

If you have diabetes, you can reduce the risk of heart disease by managing your blood sugar carefully and following a diabetes-friendly diet that’s rich in fiber and low in sugar, fat, and simple carbohydrates. You should also maintain a healthy weight. If you smoke, stop. This can prevent heart disease, eye disease, and circulation problems.

Depression

It’s normal to experience depression after a heart attack, but if your sadness begins to affect your daily life or causes you to become unable to cope with everyday tasks, you may need treatment. Depression can slow the recovery process. It can also have a negative effect on heart health in people who don’t have heart disease.

Depression can lead to a number of changes in your body that can increase your risk for developing heart disease or having a heart attack. Too much stress and sadness can elevate your blood pressure and your levels of a substance called C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP is a marker for inflammation in the body. Higher-than-normal levels of CRP may indicate heart disease.

Talk with your doctor about your depression if you feel hopeless and isolated several weeks after a heart event. Contact your doctor immediately if you feel suicidal. Professional help can get you back on the track to good health and may lessen the possibility of recurring problems.

Heart Disease in Pregnancy

Heart disease and pregnancy can be a dangerous mix for both mother and child. During a normal pregnancy, blood volume increases by approximately half, putting a strain on even a healthy heart. A diseased heart may have difficulty pumping the additional blood throughout the body during gestation and can be weakened by the demands of labor and delivery.

Some women may have underlying heart defects that remain unknown until the strain of pregnancy causes the condition to appear. Consult your primary care physician or obstetrician if you’re pregnant and display some of these symptoms:

  • breathing difficulties that are not related to the baby’s position
  • heart palpitations — irregular or skipped heartbeats
  • lightheadedness or fainting
  • “clicking” sounds with each heartbeat
  • bluish tint to your lips or fingertips (cyanosis)

Based on your symptoms and medical history, your doctor will perform tests to determine if your heart is functioning normally. Some heart conditions, such as stenosis (narrowing of the aortic valve) require antibiotics and intensive care during and after delivery to prevent infection. If you have more serious heart conditions such as unrepaired defects in your heart chambers, your doctor may advise you not to become pregnant. If you had heart disease before conceiving, discuss your health with a physician as part of the family planning process to help you have a healthy pregnancy and baby.

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