Heart disease occurs when the blood vessels of the heart are affected. One of a group of diseases affecting the blood vessels, heart disease is also called cardiovascular disease and includes stroke, angina (chest pain), high blood pressure and rheumatic heart disease. The first three conditions share a common characteristic — narrowing or blockage of the blood vessels. Rheumatic heart disease, however, weakens the heart muscle.
Genetics and family history play a heavy role in heart disease risks. The risk is especially increased if family members developed heart disease relatively early in life. The risk for heart disease rises with age, and for women heart disease risks increase after menopause. Other risk factors include being overweight or obese, being physically inactive and having diabetes. Smoking and alcohol abuse can increase the risk of developing heart disease, as does high blood pressure, which can cause damage to the blood vessels. Women who develop high blood pressure during pregnancy also have an increased risk of heart disease as they age.
Most treatments are aimed at affecting the heart rate, strengthening the heart or changing the heart rhythm. Exercise helps promote circulation and endurance, and weight loss decreases the strain on the heart. Medications are used to regulate the heart, lower cholesterol or help the body eliminate excess fluid to reduce the heart’s workload. An angioplasty can help open narrowed arteries, and a metal or plastic stent can keep them open. Heart bypass surgery may be necessary for cases of severe heart disease.
Prevention strategies can be helpful for many patients, although those with a family history of early heart disease may still need medication or other treatments. A healthy diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, fibers, and minimally processed and refined foods can help to promote overall health. Regular aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, running, swimming or cycling, keeps the circulatory system in good shape. Regular health checkups can help to identify problems early. Good oral health care is also important, as gum disease is known to be related to heart problems.
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