Heart disease is the leading cause of death in men, accounting for almost one in every four male deaths. What's more, cardiovascular disease (CVD) can be silent and go undiagnosed until signs or symptoms of a heart attack or heart failure manifest.
However, knowledge is power and understanding risk factors for heart disease can ultimately help prevent heart attacks in men. Learn how lifestyle habits contribute to many circulatory system diseases and how to reduce risk of cardiovascular diseases to live a long, healthy life.
What Is Heart Disease?
Cardiovascular disease, otherwise known as heart disease, is an umbrella term for a wide range of cardiovascular problems that are frequently related to a process called atherosclerosis. This latter term refers to a condition that develops when plaque builds up in the walls of arteries, narrowing the vessels and making it more difficult for blood to flow. Over time, this can lead to blood clots that completely block blood flow and result in heart attack and/or stroke.
While the most common types of heart disease like coronary heart disease and heart attacks are highly preventable, congenital ones discussed last are not. While they will be included in the following list, the remaining sections of this article will refer to the preventable kinds of cardiovascular disease.
The main types of heart disease include the following detailed below.
Coronary Artery Disease
Also referred to as coronary or ischemic heart disease, this is the most common type of heart disease and develops when arteries become clogged with plaque, causing the vessels to harden and narrow. This process of atherosclerosis reduces blood supply to the heart, so it receives inadequate oxygen and nutrients, and the heart muscle weakens (cardiomyopathy) as a result. Ultimately, this can cause a heart attack.
Heart Attack (Myocardial Infarction)
Reduced blood flow to the heart due to a blood clot causes a heart attack. If the clot completely cuts off blood flow to a section of the heart, part of that heart muscle begins to die (necrosis). Most often, blood flow to the heart is reduced because fat, cholesterol and other substances build up and form plaque deposits. These plaque deposits then release platelets that cause the blood to clot.
While cardiac arrest is often mislabelled as a heart attack, these conditions are different, as cardiac arrest occurs when the heart suddenly stops working due to a factor that is not necessarily atherosclerosis.
Chronic Heart Failure (CHF)
While many people can mostly recover from a heart attack after making healthy lifestyle changes, chronic heart failure refers to a long-term, progressive condition where the heart is too weak and/or stiff to pump blood adequately. As a result, the body's cells do not receive enough oxygen or nutrients.
In the early stages of heart failure, the heart attempts to compensate by enlarging, developing more muscle mass, pumping faster (increasing blood pressure), and diverting blood flow away from less important organs like the kidneys and brain.
Heart failure typically continues and worsens until the body cannot keep up with these compensation mechanisms and the heart stops working. Some people refer to this as congestive heart failure.
An arrhythmia is an abnormal heart rhythm and includes a heart that beats too slow, too fast or irregularly due to a disruption in the electrical impulses that coordinate heartbeat. Arrhythmias affect how well the heart works and can also cause inadequate blood flow to meet the body's needs. There are various types, including:
• Tachycardia (rapid heartbeat)
• Bradycardia (slow heartbeat)
• Atrial fibrillation
• Premature contraction, with people often noticing a fluttering or racing heart
Congenital Heart Defects
These types of heart problems develop when a fetus is still growing and are mostly unpreventable. While some are never diagnosed in an otherwise healthy person who lives normally, others can, unfortunately, cause sudden death.
Types of congenital heart defects are:
• Aortic stenosis
• Atrial septal defect
• Coarctation of the aorta
• Ebstein anomaly
• Patent ductus arteriosus
• Patent foramen ovale
• Tetralogy of Fallot
• Truncus arteriosus
• Ventricular septal defect
There are numerous other heart conditions and diseases that can also increase the risk for heart attack or chronic heart failure. However, they are typically less common and often a result of a prior heart attack or an inherited condition.
For reference, some include dilated cardiomyopathy, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, mitral valve regurgitation, mitral valve prolapse, and heart infection.
Risk Factors for Heart Disease
Several medical conditions and lifestyle habits increase the risk of developing heart disease. Furthermore, there are further specific risks for men compared to females. Of importance, men also tend to develop heart disease about ten years earlier on average than women.
The more risk factors one has and the greater degree of each risk factor, the higher one’s chance of developing heart disease. Risk factors tend to fall into one of three categories:
1. Major risk factors
2. Modifiable risk factors
3. Contributing risk factors
Some major risk factors like smoking are controllable while others like genetics are not so much, whereas modifiable risk factors like poor diet and physical inactivity are largely controllable. Contributing risk factors are associated with increased risk of CVD, but their significance or prevalence isn’t yet fully determined.
Here are the most common risk factors for heart disease in males:
• Genetics: Heart disease runs in familial lineages and is more common in certain populations like African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, American Indians, native Hawaiians, and some Asian-Americans.
• Male gender: Men inherently have a higher risk of heart attack and tend to have them earlier in life compared to women, though more women die from heart attacks than men.
• Increased age: The majority of people who die from coronary heart disease are 65 years or older, though heart disease and heart attacks are affecting people much younger today.
• High blood pressure: Increased blood pressure increases the heart's workload and causes the heart muscle to thicken and harden. While there is a genetic component, it can be prevented through healthy lifestyle practices like a nutritious diet and physical activity.
• High cholesterol: A diet high in saturated and trans fat is associated with high total cholesterol, LDL and triglyceride levels, and low HDL levels, and is also affected by age, heredity. and diet.
• Diabetes: Type 2 diabetes greatly increases the risk of developing heart disease, and even more so with uncontrolled blood sugar levels. Nearly 68 percent of people with type 2 diabetes over the age of 65 dies of heart disease or stroke, so preventing and/or managing blood sugar levels is key.
• Smoking: Smokers have a much higher risk for developing heart disease regardless of other risk factors and smoking is a powerful independent risk factor for sudden cardiac death.
• Overweight and obesity: Overweight and obesity cause the heart to work harder and promote atherosclerosis. This is another strong independent factor of heart disease.
• Poor diet: Nutritionally void diets high in refined carbohydrates and inflammatory oils increase the risk of heart disease, largely because they contribute to other CVD risk factors like diabetes and overweight, and obesity.
• Physical inactivity: Similar to the above point, physical inactivity raises the risk for developing risk factors like obesity that then increase the risk of heart disease.
• Excessive alcohol use: Drinking too much alcohol over time is associated with raising blood pressure, contributing to high triglyceride and cholesterol levels, cardiomyopathy, stroke and obesity, and can produce irregular heartbeats.
• Unmanaged stress: Researchers have noted a relationship with stress levels and/or how well someone manages stress and coronary heart disease, although other lifestyle habits and socioeconomic status also contribute to this correlation.
Specific to males, erectile dysfunction is a lesser-known risk factor of cardiovascular disease. While most people think this condition is a natural part of aging, a Johns Hopkins expert says otherwise. Rather, it can indicate a physical problem such as reduced blood flow. This reproductive organ is vascular, meaning it requires adequate blood flow and supply to function.
So, erectile dysfunction is really due to a lack of blood flow, which may be caused by hardened or narrowed arteries. Because the arteries of this organ are smaller, reduced blood flow to the penis often manifests earlier than reduced blood flow to the heart, and is thus, an early warning sign of heart dysfunction.
Similarly, low testosterone levels are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, although the exact mechanisms are not completely understood. All in all, sexual dysfunction in men is interrelated to the health of other systems throughout the body, and especially the cardiovascular system.
Signs of a Heart Attack
Knowing the signs and symptoms of a heart attack can be lifesaving. While some heart attacks are sudden and intense, most begin slowly and only inflict mild pain and discomfort.
Interestingly, while chest pain is the most common symptom for males and females, the latter are more likely than men to experience the other common symptoms. Therefore, it is vital for men to seek medical assistance at the first sign of abnormal chest pain.
These are the most common signs and symptoms of a heart attack:
• Centralized chest pain that feels like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or intense pain that lasts for more than a few minutes or sporadically returns
• Discomfort or pain in the jaw, neck, back, arms, shoulders, or stomach
• Shortness of breath with or without chest pain
• Nausea, indigestion, heartburn, and vomiting
• Lightheadedness or dizziness
• Breaking out in a cold sweat
• Feeling generally weak
It’s important to note that early warning signs can occur days or even weeks in advance. The earliest sign might be recurrent chest pain or pressure (angina) triggered by activity but relieved with rest. Getting checked out by a doctor can then prevent a full-blown heart attack.
After having a heart attack or detecting another heart problem, people often need to take cardiac medication and alter lifestyle choices.
How to Prevent CVD
Heart disease prevention is critical and should begin early in life and assessing risk factors and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can largely prevent heart attacks and cardiovascular disease.
To reduce the risk of developing heart disease, do the following.
As one of the major independent risk factors of cardiovascular disease, it is important to stop this habit to reduce risk. Develop a solid plan, taper if needed, and join support groups to make the process smoother.
Eat a Nutritious Diet
Eating a nutrient-dense diet full of colorful whole foods (fruits and veggies), hearty, fibrous grains, lean protein, and healthy fats greatly reduces the risk of developing heart disease. It also reduces the risk of developing the main risk factors of cardiovascular disease like diabetes, overweight and obesity, high blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides.
Engage in Enough Physical Activity
Along the same lines, getting enough exercise helps to maintain proper heart function and reduces the risk of heart disease by first decreasing risk factors such as overweight and obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Chronic stress elicits a chain of reactions that wreak havoc in the body and increase risk for many diseases even beyond those related to the heart. Some popular coping techniques include meditation, journaling, exercise, therapy, and engaging in enjoyable activities daily.
Drink Alcohol Responsibly
To reduce the risk of many diseases associated with excessive alcohol consumption, the CDC recommends women drink no more than one drink per day and men drink no more than two drinks per day. However, even less consumption than this is associated with further reduced risk.
Seek Medical Assistance Before Heart Disease Progresses
If part of a more vulnerable population, it is smart to be proactive and work with doctors and other medical professionals like registered dietitians to implement lifestyle changes and receive early screening.
Heart disease refers to different types of heart conditions, including heart attacks, coronary heart disease, and chronic heart failure. While currently the leading cause of death in men in the United States, CVD can be prevented through healthy lifestyle habits such as nutrient-dense diets and cessation of smoking.
Moreover, understanding and identifying signs and symptoms of heart attacks can prove lifesaving, and it is important to seek medical assistance at the first signs.
Allow this information to be empowering and take the necessary measures to reduce the risk of heart disease today. A long, vibrant life awaits!
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Special Heart Risks for Men. Johns Hopkins Medicine. www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/special-heart-risks-for-men.
Understand Your Risks to Prevent a Heart Attack. American Heart Association. Reviewed June 30, 2016. www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/understand-your-risks-to-prevent-a-heart-attack.
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