Heart disease is responsible for one in four deaths in the United States, ending the life of some 610,000 people every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The most common type of heart disease is coronary heart disease (CHD), claiming more than 370,000 lives annually. CHD is when a waxy substance builds up inside of the arteries which run along the surface of your heart. Their job is to supply the heart with oxygen-rich blood. Given enough time, this substance can harden or rupture, which will narrow the arteries or may even block them. This can reduce or cut off the blood flow to your heart.
If the heart does not get enough blood or if the blood flow is completely blocked, this can result in a type of chest pain called angina or a heart attack, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Over time, coronary heart disease can also lead to heart failure or arrythmias.
Every year, an estimated 735,000 Americans suffer from a heart attack. That is roughly the number of people living in Alaska. (Incidentally, Alaska lies at the lower end of the heart disease death rate range.)
What causes heart disease?
The top three risk factors for heart disease are high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking. According to the CDC, almost half of Americans can check at least one of these.
Other factors that expose you to heart disease include diabetes, being overweight and obesity, an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, and excessive use of alcohol. The risk also increases with age. In addition, stress and anxiety may also contribute to CHD, as these can trigger artery tightening or raise the blood pressure, according to the NHLBI.
Let’s take a closer look at two of these risk factors: smoking and stress.
Oh, the benefits of a smoke-free life
Heart disease or no heart disease, smoking is a killer. The single most preventable cause of death in the US, smoking is responsible for one in five fatalities. It can cause cancer in almost any organ of your body, damage your airways, and mess up your reproductive health. And it is not just a question of lighting up—smokeless tobacco products bring along their own list of troubles.
But staying on topic, smoking increases the risk of heart disease and stroke by about 2-4 times. You don’t need to smoke more than five cigarettes a day to risk early-stage cardiovascular disease.
Smoking makes your blood vessels both thicker and narrower. This, in turn, causes your heart to beat faster, raises your blood pressure, and increases the risk of blood clots forming. Apart from stroke and heart attacks, blood clots can reduce the blood flow to your legs and skin, which may cause tissue damage.
Kicking the habit comes with a long list of benefits and they begin quickly. In as early as one year, your likelihood of having a heart attack drops sharply. In two to five years, your risk of stroke is no greater than that of a non-smoker. By the time you celebrate ten years without nicotine, the threat of you developing lung cancer has dropped by half.
That is not to say that quitting is simple. However, if it is nicotine withdrawal symptoms that you are worried about, this is the easy part. Some people don’t experience any symptoms at all and those who do will be rid of them in a few days or a couple of weeks at most. The psychology behind changing a habit is more challenging, which means it pays to form a plan in which you explain to yourself why you want to quit and what to do when the urge strikes. Finally, ask your family, friends and coworkers to support you and don’t forget there is plenty of help available.
When the stress doesn’t end
Stress is the brain’s response to any demand, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). When your body experiences stress, it releases chemicals and hormones that will help you focus, raise your energy levels, and elevate your senses. Stress in a dangerous situation can be a real lifesaver.
When the danger is over, your bodily systems will go back to normal. However, if this does not happen or if the cause of stress is constant, you will run into trouble.
There are plenty of reasons for someone to feel stressed, but change is particularly prominent. The change does not have to be negative—you might be getting married—and it might be perceived, not real, but it can cause stress all the same.
The NIMH differentiates between three types of stress. Routine stress is the pressure you feel from work, family or other daily responsibilities. Sudden onset stress usually relates to an abrupt negative change, like losing your job or getting a serious illness. Traumatic stress occurs when you run the risk of being seriously hurt or killed, like in an assault or a war.
If you experience routine stress, your body continuously suppresses some of its functions because it does not know when it is safe to operate normally. This may leave you with a compromised immune system and digestive or reproductive problems, as well as a long list of serious health issues, including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and anxiety disorder.
Different people experience stress in different ways. Behavioral symptoms include eating and sleeping too much or too little and isolating yourself. Cognitive symptoms can manifest through a poor memory, difficulties concentrating or constantly worrying. Emotional symptoms include a short temper, an inability to relax, and feelings of being overwhelmed or lonely. And finally, physical symptoms may include nausea, rapid heartbeat and frequent colds.
If you recognize yourself with these symptoms, don’t hesitate to seek help—from those close to you and professionals. Seemingly small things can make a huge impact. Getting regular exercise is extremely helpful, as is relaxing activities like meditation or yoga. Try to think positively, by focusing on what you have accomplished, not dwelling on the things that didn’t work out.
If you feel stressed, pausing to think about your life might seem like something that can wait. However, asking yourself what is truly important to you, what can wait and what can be abandoned might help set you on the right track. After all, it is easy to become blind to how important your health and your heart are when you are constantly pressed for time.
About the Author
Eva Nyman grew up in Finland, but has lived in Belgium, France and Hungary. She holds a degree in journalism and communication from the University of Helsinki and has worked as a reporter for ten years. She feeds her fascination with history and current affairs with books and her love of nature with hikes. She’s passionate about traveling, particularly slow journeys, and her dream is to visit every corner of the world.