Knowing Your Heart: Common Heart Problems

A man and woman are forming a heart shape with their hands. She is on his back. They're smiling.
Although the heart is an important symbol for love and affection, most folks don’t pay much attention to their actual heart health until things start going wrong.

We all know a friend, family member or colleague with heart problems. For me, it was my dad. He had a heart attack in middle age, after years of smoking. He died of heart failure a few years ago.

There’s no doubt the heart is one of the most celebrated parts of the human body. The heart symbol is known across the world. We celebrate the heart as the source of our feelings – the place where our emotions come from, including love and affection. And, it’s the only human organ to have a holiday centered around it (at least, around what it symbolizes). Yet, most people don’t think much about their actual, physical, beating heart.

By understanding how the heart works and what you can do to care for it, we can avoid the common heart problems that can hurt the people we love. As the pump that delivers needed oxygen and nutrients to our body’s cells, the heart plays a critical role in making the funny meat robot that is your body actually work.

Stats: The Heart of the Matter

In the US, about 650,000 people die from some form of heart disease every year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers heart disease “the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States.”

Other significant stats from the CDC about heart disease in the US:

  • One person dies every 37 seconds from heart disease
  • Someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds
  • About 18.2 million adults have coronary artery disease
  • About 1 in 5 heart attacks is silent (the damage is done without the person being aware)
  • One in every four deaths is a result of heart disease

We spoke with Craig Thomas, MSN, RN, ACNP, CHFN, and Lisa Jett, FNP, MSN, RN. As nurse practitioners with UVA Health’s heart and vascular care team, they help people learn more about their hearts and the common heart problems that lead to these frightening statistics.

Getting to Know Your Heart

You know the basics: The heart is divided into 4 chambers. It receives a regular electrical signal that causes it to contract, sending blood around your body. Since your blood flow should always go in one direction, the heart chambers have valves that prevent blood from flowing in a direction that it shouldn’t. And, just like any other part of your body, the heart muscle itself needs nutrients and oxygen. Blood vessels (arteries and veins) serve as the supply lines that feed the heart.

Categories of Heart Conditions

“When it comes to heart issues,” says Thomas, “I like to think about them as 3 different categories. So, the heart has an electrical conduction system, which can have problems. It has vascular (blood) vessels that feed it. They can become blocked and cause trouble. It also has mechanical issues that can occur, either in the muscle or the valves of the heart.”

The most common heart conditions include:

  • Vessels
    • Coronary artery disease (from blocked vessels)
    • Heart attack
  • Electrical
    • Arrhythmia (irregular heart beat)
    • Tachycardia (heart beats too fast)
    • Bradycardia (heart beats too slow)
  • Valves & Muscle
    • Stenosis (valve can’t open correctly, restricting flow)
    • Regurgitation (valve can’t close tightly enough, allowing back flow)
    • Heart failure

“The most common heart condition affecting Americans is coronary artery disease,” states Jett. “This is a buildup of plaque inside the arteries that feed the heart.” This build up can eventually cause a blockage in the artery. Blocked heart arteries can’t deliver enough oxygen and nutrients to the muscle, which affects how well your heart works. If it gets bad enough, you may have a heart attack, where a lack of oxygen and nutrients causes a piece of your heart muscle to die.

Damage to the heart can also lead to heart failure, a condition in which the heart muscle is too weak to properly pump blood around the body. Because your heart can’t properly pump, your body can’t get enough needed oxygen and nutrients.

Signs of Heart Problems

How would you know if you actually do have a heart condition? Are there any clear signs?

Jett says, “Common signs of a heart condition include pain in the upper abdomen (like indigestion), chest pain, difficulty breathing, or rapid heart rate when exerting yourself. Less common signs may be jaw or neck pain, or dizziness or fainting.”

Thomas agrees. “Tiredness, chest pain and shortness of breath, sometimes back pain, nausea and sweating. Those tend to be seen more in men than in women. Women will often have different symptoms, more like abdominal or back pain, or sometimes just tiredness.”

Other signs that your heart may be struggling include:

  • Pressure or heaviness in the chest
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Feeling of heartburn
  • Palpitations (racing, fluttery or pounding feeling in the chest)
  • Swelling in the ankles, feet or abdomen
  • Fast weight gain

Thomas cautions that the signs may be subtle at first, and you may be responding to them without realizing. “Human bodies are naturally adaptive. It’s not uncommon to see folks that have become less and less active over time to mitigate their symptoms, without realizing actually what’s happening. It’s important for people to realize what they’re doing, and for us to keep encouraging a healthy lifestyle. Otherwise, this type of disease process can go on for months or years undetected until it becomes a really big problem.”

How Do Heart Problems Happen?

You might be at risk for developing heart disease for a number of reasons, like:

  • Lifestyle habits (smoking, diet, alcoholism, lack of activity)
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Stress
  • Obesity
  • Genetics
  • Depression

Whether or not you have symptoms, having any of these risk factors means you should pay attention to your heart’s health.

Jett says, “If you have a strong family history of coronary artery disease at a young age, you should discuss with your health care provider what your risks are and the best ways to reduce that risk. If you have a family history of sudden death for an unknown reason (considered to be a possible heart attack), it is important to discuss this with your health care provider.”

Take Care of Your Heart

Get Your Heart Checked

Start your heart health journey by seeing a primary care provider.

Being aware of heart health and taking steps to keep your heart healthy clearly impact your long-term health. Luckily, Jett and Thomas list a variety of tried-and-true ways of preventing heart disease:

  • Keeping a heart-healthy diet
  • Exercising daily
  • Avoiding tobacco
  • Reducing stress
  • Controlling blood pressure
  • Controlling blood sugar levels (if you’re someone with diabetes)

Jett reminds that a heart-healthy diet means “a diet that is low in animal products and high in vegetables, grains, and omega-3 and omega-9 fats (like in olive oil and certain fish, including sardine, mackerel, anchovies, wild salmon, herring and rainbow trout).”

She continues, “It’s also important to check your cholesterol level annually.” Along with your cholesterol, when should you get your heart checked? Thomas advises, “I think anytime you have a sudden change in the way you feel, especially if it’s tiredness and chest pain. I think it warrants getting evaluated.”

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