Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death and accounts for 17.3 million deaths throughout the world each year. Cardiovascular disease as a category includes:
- Coronary heart disease – a disease of the arteries supplying needed oxygen and nutrients to your heart and manifested as chest pain or heart attack (Myocardial infarction).
- Cerebrovascular disease – a disease of the arteries supplying needed oxygen and nutrients to your brain and manifested as a Transient ischemic attack (TIA) or Stroke.
- Peripheral artery disease – a disease of the arteries supplying oxygen and nutrients to your extremities (most commonly affects your legs) manifested as claudication or pain in the legs with exertion.
- Thoracic or Aortic aneurysms – enlargement of the aorta (major artery carrying blood from your heart down through your chest and abdomen into your legs).
Considering the above list, the main cause of the top three categories is Atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the medical term for plaque buildup in the arteries of the body. This plaque starts as fatty streaks that are deposited in the arteries usually during adolescents. These streaks then progress and form plaques and subsequent occlusion or plugging of the arteries. This occlusion of the arteries then leads to a decrease in the amount of blood that can get through to the muscles or other tissues that they are supplying. Most people do not know that these streaks and plaques are present until the occlusion becomes significant enough that the tissues do not get the needed nutrients and start to die. This is what occurs in a heart attack.
Risk factors for cardiovascular disease include hyperlipidemia (elevated cholesterol), hypertension (high blood pressure), smoking, age, male gender, and family history of cardiovascular disease. Some off these categories we can change or control while others we cannot. Clearly we cannot change our gender, age, or our family history. However, we certainly can help control the other risk factors present. There is a lot of data from many studies to recommend not smoking, keeping physically active, maintaining normal blood pressure, maintaining normal cholesterol and blood sugar levels, being a normal weight, and eating a healthy diet. Doing these can significantly reduce your risk of atherosclerosis and subsequent cardiovascular disease.
The risks associated with smoking have been clearly stated and shown in many studies. This is a very high-risk factor for atherosclerosis. Please visit with your healthcare provider if you are having trouble quitting.
The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of exercise weekly. The type of exercises you can do are vast and include playing many sports, walking at a brisk pace, climbing stairs or hiking, jogging or running, and cycling. Choose an activity that you enjoy so that you will continue to do it regularly. Try some new activities. In addition to cardiovascular benefits, you may find a new hobby or make new friends.
Blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar are affected by our diet and exercise. Low salt intake can improve high blood pressure. Decreasing total fat intake and replacing saturated and trans fats (largely from animal fats) with polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats (largely plant-based fats) along with limiting dietary cholesterol have been shown to positively affect our cholesterol. Decreasing our intake of sugar and other carbohydrates can help maintain low blood sugar and help decrease our risk of diabetes which is a significant risk factor for coronary heart disease. There are many diets out there that can both help with weight loss but also help us control these risk factors. Find a diet plan that will help you accomplish your goals but also is maintainable throughout your life. You may also need medications to help decrease your blood pressure, cholesterol, and/or blood sugar. Please visit with your healthcare provider about risks, benefits, and need for these medications. Regardless of your need for medications, these lifestyle changes are a significant part of maintaining good health.
Because there are many risk factors that we cannot control it is important for each of us to decide today to make potential changes needed in order to decrease our risk of stroke and heart attack. Regardless of where you are in your life there are likely some changes, big or small, that you can make in order to have a healthier lifestyle. Even if you feel like you can only do small changes to exercise start with those small changes and progress to more activity over time. It is a decision we all have to make for ourselves.
Brayden McBride, MD
Canyon View Family Medicine