Diseases of the Heart: Simplified and Explained

Just over 100 years ago, life expectancy and causes of death in the United States looked much different than they do today. The top three causes of death in 1900 were pneumonia and the flu, tuberculosis, and gastrointestinal infections (1). Today’s top three causes of death are heart disease, cancer, and chronic lower respiratory diseases (2). While life expectancy has increased, poor lifestyle choices now attribute to humans falling short of reaching their full life expectancy potential. Claiming more lives than the rest, heart disease in particular, may be preventable with proper nutrition, physical activity, and a smoke-free lifestyle.

The ancient Greeks once believed that the heart was the source of intelligence. Others believed that the heart was responsible for producing emotion (3). Unfortunately for the heart, the brain eventually took credit for these large responsibilities, but the heart still has its hand in these functions. When you become nervous or excited, you may notice that your heart beats faster than normal. When you lie down to sleep and your mind relaxes, your heart may slow down. Most of the time we hardly pay attention to our heart, until it begins to function differently than normal, and we quickly become aware of it’s vital presence. The heart is comprised of four spaces: the right atrium, right ventricle, left atrium, and left ventricle. In these spaces the heart pumps blood through body by a magical electrical node and works closely with the lungs to exchange gases and provide the body with oxygen. When we hear, “heart attack,” we may think of the heart itself. However, disease often begins in the blood vessels. Before we discuss prevention, here are definitions of a few common complications that may affect the heart:

Plaque A combination of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances that harden in the arteries over time, limiting blood flow throughout the body (4).
Atherosclerosis Narrowing of the arteries due to plaque buildup, limiting blood flow (4).
Coronary Heart Disease A buildup of plaque on the coronary arteries (attached to the heart), limiting blood flow (5).
High Blood Pressure Blood flow that places higher-than-normal pressure on the blood vessels, leading to possible artery damage (6).
Peripheral Artery Disease A buildup of plaque that typically limits blood flow to limbs such as the leg (7).
Heart Attack A blockage of blood flow that prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching the heart, and if left too long, areas of the heart begin to die (8).

As you may have noticed, a common theme amongst most heart complications is plaque buildup. Eventually plaque can rupture in the artery leading to a blood clot. These blood clots are what pose a life-threatening risk. Even high blood pressure can lead to a heart attack and peripheral artery disease. The good (no, great!) news is that you can lower your risk of heart disease. Avoid eating processed foods and foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Reduce sugar and steer clear of foods with any amounts of trans fat. Increase your fiber intake by eating fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole wheat bread, and nuts (9). This rule isn’t just for the average population, but applies to individuals taking statins as well. Statins reduce the amount of cholesterol made by the liver but still leaves you responsible for the cholesterol you consume in your diet (10). Physical activity is also important in reducing risk for heart disease because it helps maintain a healthy weight, lowers blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. Lastly, smoking greatly increases your chance of heart disease. Chemicals in tobacco smoke can damage red blood cells, heart function, blood vessel function, and increases risk of plaque buildup. It is especially dangerous if combined with other risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and unhealthy weight (11). Still not convinced? Harvard Medical School points out that just one year after giving up smoking, your risk for a heart attack drops by 50% (10).

The heart works hard every day to keep you alive and well, pumping constantly and doing it’s best to keep your blood flowing smoothly. Thankfully, there are many ways you can make changes to your life, starting today. Don’t leave your heart hanging!


1) Tippett R. Mortality and Cause of Death, 1900 v. 2010. UNC Carolina Population Center. http://demography.cpc.unc.edu/2014/06/16/mortality-and-cause-of-death-1900-v-2010/. Published June 16, 2014. Accessed November 20, 2017.
2) Leading Causes of Death. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm. Reviewed March 17, 2017. Accessed November 20, 2017.
3) Marieb EN, Hoehn K, Hutchinson M. Human anatomy & physiology. San Francisco: Benjamin Cummings; 2010.
4) What is Atherosclerosis? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/atherosclerosis. Updated June 22, 2016. Accessed November 20, 2017.
5) What is Coronary Heart Disease? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/cad. Updated June 22, 2016. Accessed November 20, 2017.
6) Description of High Blood Pressure. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/hbp. Updated September 10, 2015. Accessed November 20, 2017.
7) What is Peripheral Artery Disease? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/pad. Updated June 22, 2016. Accessed November 20, 2017.
8) What is a Heart Attack? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/heartattack. Updated January 27, 2015. Accessed November 20, 2017.
9) Preventing Heart Disease: Healthy Living Habits. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/healthy_living.htm. Updated August 10, 2015. Accessed November 20, 2017.
10) 10 myths about heart disease. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/10-myths-about-heart-disease. Published June 2013. Accessed November 20, 2017.
11) How Does Smoking Affect the Heart and Blood Vessels. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/smo. Published June 22, 2016. Accessed November 20, 2017.


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This information is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your physician or other healthcare professional or any information contained on or in any product label or packaging. Do not use the information from this article for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing medication or other treatment. Always speak with your physician or other healthcare professional before taking any medication or nutritional, herbal or homeopathic supplement, or using any treatment for a health problem. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem, contact your health care provider promptly. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking professional advice because of something you have read in this article



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