Heart Disease: What is it?

Heart disease, also referred to as cardiovascular disease includes:

  • Coronary heart disease: build up of plagues in the walls of arteries leading to the heart. Plaque build up is called atherosclerosis. It can eventually narrow the blood vessel enough to cause decreased blood flow to the heart. Decreased blood flow to the heart can cause chest pain referred to as angina. A heart attack or myocardial infarction (MI) happens if a clot is formed and blood flow to the heart is stopped. Long term coronary heart disease as well as heart attack causes damage to the heart.
  • Stoke: caused by decreased blood flow to the brain. Atherosclerosis, or plaque build up in blood vessels leading to the brain can cause a blockage. This blockage decreases blood flow to the brain. Total blockage of a blood vessel to the brain causes an ischemic stroke, the most common type of stroke.  Uncontrolled high blood pressure can weaken blood vessels in the brain or leading to the brain and can cause a blood vessel to burst; this is called a hemorrhagic stroke.
  • High Blood Pressure: extremely common, and if uncontrolled, increases risk for stroke and heart attack, and kidney failure.
  • Heart Failure: often called congestive heart failure, means that the heart isn’t pumping as well as it should, decreasing the amount of blood and oxygen throughout the body.
  • Arrythmia: the heart is beating irregularly; it may be too slow (bradycardia) or too fast, tachycardia. Arrhythmias can make it difficult for the heart to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs.
  • Heart valve problems: When heart valves are not functioning properly. There are three types: Stenosis: when valves do not open enough to allow for blood flow. Regurgitation: when heart valves do not close properly and allows blood to leak through. Prolapse: when the leaflets of the valves bulge or ‘prolapse’ back into the upper chamber of the heart.

Some of us are at higher risk for developing heart disease than others. If you have any of the risk factors listed in the next section, it is especially important for you to pay attention to what you can do to lower your risks!

Heart Disease: What increases your risk?

  • Having a parent or sibling who has had a heart attack or stroke at a young age (women <65 years, men < 55 years),
  • Having high LDL cholesterol (over 100 mg/dL) or triglycerides (over 150 mg/dL), or low HDL cholesterol (under 40mg/dL)
  • Having high blood pressure (>130/80 mm Hg),
  • Having diabetes OR pre-diabetes
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Smoking
  • Being physically inactive
  • Having had pre-eclampsia during pregnancy
  • Eating an unhealthy diet
  • Being are over 55 years old
  • Being male

We can’t change our age, gender or family history, but there are many things we can change to lower are risks for heart disease. How we eat, move, sleep and deal with stress all impact risks for heart disease. In addition, working with your physician to lower cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure is very important–this may mean taking medication.


The next three posts on this site will discuss ways to improve your eating to decrease your risks for heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

  • Eating Whole foods
  • Heart Healthy fats
  • Heart Healthy Carbohydrates