A guide to cardiovascular disease and a heart-healthy lifestyle

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February marks American Heart Month, a time to celebrate cardiovascular health and focus on heart disease prevention.

Heart disease has continuously been the greatest health threat to Americans and the leading cause of death worldwide. It is estimated that nearly 17.9 million people across the globe die of cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), and roughly 48.6% of Americans age 20 or older have at least one CVD, including heart failure, congenital heart defects, stroke, or hypertension. In addition, it contributes to more than $320 billion in annual healthcare costs and lost productivity. Human Heart Graphic

Despite the stunning statistics, CVDs are preventable with a healthy lifestyle. According to the American Heart Association, Life’s Essential 8 measures for a healthy life include core health behaviors (smoking, physical activity, diet, and weight) and health factors (cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose control) that contribute to cardiovascular health.

In this article, we will dive into the risk factors of heart disease, habits for developing a heart-healthy lifestyle, and heart-related research done at Emory.

Risk factors of heart disease

The three leading risk factors for CVDs among Americans are high blood pressure and high cholesterol, obesity and diabetes, and smoking and alcohol consumption:

  • High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a medical condition that occurs when the pressure of blood pushing against the artery walls is constantly high (about ≥130/80 mm Hg). Uncontrolled high blood pressure can significantly contribute to heart attack or stroke. Also, having high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol, can double a person’s risk of CVDs, because excessive cholesterol can build in the artery walls and block blood flow to one’s heart and other major organs.
  • Diabetes is a chronic disease that causes excessive sugar to build up in the blood, as one’s body can’t use or effectively produce insulin to regulate blood sugar. Over time, diabetes damages blood vessels in the heart and could potentially lead to heart attack or stroke. Obesity, or excess body fat resulting from calorie imbalance in our body, can also contribute directly to CVD risk factors, including type 2 diabetes and hypertension.
  • Smoking is another major cause of CVD, where cigarette use doubles a person’s risk for stroke. Chemicals in cigarette smoke cause the cells that line blood vessels to become swollen and inflamed. Smoking – even secondhand tobacco smoke – can lead to a rise in blood pressure, increased risk for blood clots, and reduced blood supply to the heart.

Habits for a heart-healthy lifestyle

The above CVD risk factors can usually be prevented with a healthy lifestyle. Building heart-healthy habits can not only reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease, but also increase your quality of life.

  • Exercising regularly is widely recognized to be beneficial for cardiovascular health, as it can help lower blood pressure, reduce bad cholesterol, increase insulin sensitivity, and prevent obesity. It’s well established that a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of CVD, stroke, and obesity. But being moderately active for just 30 minutes to an hour a day can effectively counteract the effects of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
  • Stopping smoking and reducing alcohol intake are cost-effective and vital interventions in CVD prevention. But breaking these habits and addictions can be difficult, which it’s why it’s recommended to commit to daily exercise, get enough sleep, pick a stress-free time to quit, and actively seek support.
  • Enjoying balanced diet is essential to our overall health and the prevention of CVD. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends sticking to healthy dietary patterns, including:
    • Consuming enough calories to maintain a healthy body weight
    • Eating lots and of fruits and veggies
    • Opting for whole foods over highly processed food
    • Avoiding excessive sugar and salt

Heart research at Emory

As a leading medical research institute, Emory University devotes many resources to conducting clinical and translational research in CVDs. The research areas from faculty within the Emory School of Medicine encompass molecular biology, genomics, bioinformatics, regenerative technology, or physiology to understand the basic science of cardiovascular biology and disease mechanisms.

Besides basic research, Emory actively engages in translational research through the Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute, which brings together clinical investigators from multiple schools at Emory University for collaborative research and knowledge sharing.

In celebrating American Heart Month, let’s together promote habits like exercise, healthy diets, and avoiding harmful substance use for our cardiovascular health.

– Samme Xie