The term “heart disease” is a very comprehensive term for conditions ranging from blocked arteries to arrhythmias. “Heart disease” is used so broadly because it’s an umbrella term for diseases of the arteries, the valves, the muscles and electrical system of the heart. “Think of the heart like a house with four rooms representing the heart’s four chambers. There are a number of things that could go wrong in any of those rooms, affecting the strength and integrity of the whole house,” says Dr. Jacqueline Tamis-Holland, Director of the Interventional Cardiology Fellowship at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s. That house could have problems that include:
- A clogged or backed up plumbing system (the arteries), which could cause coronary artery disease, or a heart attack
- Weakened walls (the heart muscle), which could indicate heart failure
- Wiring issues (the heart’s electrical system), which causes arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation
- Doors (heart valves) that don’t work properly, which causes heart valve disease like mitral valve prolapse
“I find that explaining heart disease in this way helps people understand what their specific problem is, relative to how the heart functions,” she says.
Three telltale symptoms of heart disease
All of those conditions have their own symptoms, so it’s hard to identify just one general symptom of heart disease. However, there are three telltale heart-related symptoms that should not be ignored, Dr. Tamis-Holland says: chest discomfort or pain, which could indicate blockage of an artery; shortness of breath, which could indicate weakness of the heart muscle, a valve problem, or blockage of an artery; or palpitations, irregular, skipped or racing heartbeat, which indicates an electrical problem (or arrhythmia).
If you have any of these symptoms — particularly shortness of breath and chest pain or discomfort — head to the emergency department or call your doctor right away.
Know your heart disease risk
When it comes to mitigating risk, there are factors that can be controlled and those that can’t. One uncontrollable risk factor is age — the older you get, the higher your chance of developing heart disease. Others include gender (men are more likely to develop heart disease at a younger age, though women have about the same risk as they age) and family history. Having first-degree relatives that have had heart attacks or blockages can increase your risk of developing heart disease.
“The good news is, even though you can’t do much about your family history, age, or gender, there are certain things you can do to modify or control your risk of heart disease,” Dr. Tamis-Holland says. “This is why it’s so important to take care of yourself and make positive lifestyle changes.”
Change what you can
For instance, quitting smoking improves heart health in the long and short term. Dr. Tamis-Holland also recommends adopting a healthy diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and full of fresh produce, whole grains and lean meats like chicken and fish. "One of my favorite recommendations for a good heart-healthy diet is the Mediterranean Diet," she says. A healthier diet, along with 30 minutes of exercise a day, five times a week, can help you ward off heart disease — and those habits also help maintain a healthy weight, lower cholesterol and manage diabetes for those who have it.
“Visit your doctor, and find out what your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and body mass index numbers mean,” Dr. Tamis-Holland says. “Everyone should be aware of the risk factors for heart disease so they can make an effort to prevent it from happening in the first place.”
To learn more about heart disease and interventional cardiology, call 1-855-411-LWNY (5969) or visit the Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Interventional Cardiology website.