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Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Knitted woolen heart with bandaid

DISCLAIMER: We do not give any type of medical advice on this website. You should see your medical doctor for diagnosis and treatment of any medical condition.

Since February is American Heart Disease Awareness Month, for the rest of this month, we will be covering heart disease. I personally believe that this month’s topic is one that everyone should be interested in learning more about, since a large majority of us will be affected by it as we continue to age. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, “Heart disease is a catch-all phrase for a variety of conditions that affect the heart’s structure and function” (NHLBI, Retrieved February 5, 2019). The basic types of heart disease are as follows:

  • Coronary Artery Disease

  • Heart Arrhythmias

  • Heart Valve Disease

  • Pericardial Disease

  • Cardiomyopathy (Heart Muscle Disease)

  • Congenital Heart Disease

(WebMD, Retrieved February 5, 2019)

Coronary Artery Disease: The Heart of the Matter The specific type of heart disease Swim Strokes will focus on this month is coronary artery disease (CAD). This is the most common type of heart disease and is the leading cause of death in the United States (NHLBI, Retrieved February 5, 2019) today. There is no difference between coronary artery disease and coronary heart disease. In CAD, there is a build-up of a waxy substance, called plaque, that builds up inside the arteries of the heart, cutting off circulation within the arteries in the large area of the heart. (American Heart Association, Jul. 31, 2015). Disease or injury can also cause this plaque build-up as well. CAD can affect both large and small arteries of the heart (NHBLI, Retrieved February 5, 2019). Unfortunately, this condition may strike even when there are no warning signs.

There are three main types of CAD:

  1. Obstructive coronary artery disease – occurs in the large arteries when more than 50% of the heart’s arteries are blocked with plaque. The plaque in CAD may obstruct blood in one or more of the large coronary arteries. More common among men.

  2. Nonobstructive coronary disease – occurs when less than 50% of the heart’s large arteries are blocked by plaque. This type can also be caused by illness or injury, when the inner walls of the coronary arteries spasm, which leads to temporary blood flow restriction. More common among women.

  3. Coronary microvascular disease– occurs when, on a molecular level, the heart’s smallest arteries are blocked. This type can happen alone or along with the other two types. This type usually results when blockages occur in the heart’s tiny blood vessels.Coronary microvascular disease

(NHBLI, Retrieved February 5, 2019)

Symptoms of Coronary Artery Disease

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), you can have the disease and not have any symptoms. However, the following symptoms are characteristic of this condition:

  • Chest pain or discomfort (angina) - Can also be felt as an aching, burning or fullness in chest

  • Heavy or squeezing feeling – under your breast bone (sternum), neck, arms, stomach, or upper back

  • Radiating pain felt in shoulders, arms, neck, throat, jaw, or back

  • Shortness of breath and fatigue with activity (exertion)

  • Palpitations (irregular heartbeats sensed as flip-flopping of the heart)

  • Faster heart rate

  • Dizziness

  • Nausea

  • Sweating

  • General fatigue

  • General shortness of breath

  • General weakness

(MedlinePlus, Retrieved February 5, 2019;, retrieved, February 5, 2019) Complication of Coronary Disease (CAD) – Heart Attack One of the most serious complications of CAD is an acute episode called a myocardial infarction or, in simpler terms, a heart attack. Here are some symptoms of a heart attack:

  • Angina or pressure, squeezing, or pain in the chest, arm, or below the breastbone

  • Pain or discomfort radiating to the back, jaw, throat, or arm

  • Choking feeling (may feel like heartburn)

  • Sweating, nausea, or vomiting

  • Rapid or irregular heartbeats

  • Cold sweats

  • Light-headedness or dizziness

  • Shortness of breath, especially with activity

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Weakness

  • Anxiety

  • Neck pain

(NHLBI, Retrieved February 5, 2019;, Retrieved, February 5, 2019) Please remember this important fact: According to WebMD, “If you think you are having a heart attack, DO NOT DELAY. Call for emergency help (911 in most areas). Immediate treatment of a heart attack is very important to lessen the amount of damage to the heart” (WebMD, Retrieved February 5, 2019). Risk Factors for Coronary Artery Disease 1. Unhealthy lifestyle habits a. being physically inactive b. being overweight c. smoking d. stress e. unhealthy eating patterns 2. Age a. for men risks begin to increase after age 45 (before menopause, women have much lower risk than men) b. for both women and men, the rate is the same after age 55 3. Environment and occupation a. air pollution b. other toxins or radiation c. high stress d. long periods of sitting or inactivity e. lack of sleep f. working more than 55 hours per week 4. Family history and genetics - cardiovascular disease (especially if father or brother was diagnosed before age 55, or mother or sister diagnosed before age 65 5. Other medical conditions a. atherosclerosis b. autoimmune disease, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis c. chronic kidney disease d. congenital heart defects e. diabetes f. high LDL cholesterol g. high blood pressure h. high triglycerides i. HIV/Aids j. metabolic syndrome k. overweight/obesity l. Sleep disorders (such as sleep apnea/sleep deprivation and deficiency) 6. Race or ethnicity a. African Americans b. Hispanics c. Caucasians d. Asian Americans e. Native Americans Women may have a higher risk if they have one of the following conditions: 1. Diabetes 2. Endometriosis 3. Gestational diabetes 4. Polycystic ovary syndrome 5. Preeclampsia (NHLBI, Retrieved February 5, 2019)

I don’t know about you, but after doing the research for this condition and seeing how prevalent it can be in women my age and older, I’m determined to make some lifestyle changes that might decrease my risk factors. In our next blog, we’ll discuss strategies to prevent, screen for, and manage coronary artery disease. In the meantime, you can click on the following links to find more information on diagnosing and treating this condition: Mayo Clinic, “Coronary Artery Disease.” NIH Medline Plus, the Magazine, “Diagnosis and Treatment of Coronary Artery Disease,” Fall, 2010.


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