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Matters of the heart

Dr. Bayo Curry-Winchell
Dr. Bayo Curry-Winchell

With American Heart Month coming up soon, it’s important to shine a light on cardiovascular health and heart disease, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is the leading cause of death for men, women and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. 

One person dies every 34 seconds in the U.S. from cardiovascular disease. Additionally, heart disease can affect anyone at any age and can lead to a heart attack or stroke. But what are some of the causes and symptoms of heart disease? 

Causes, risk factors 

The heart is a powerful, complex organ. There are several factors that enable it to beat and function every day. When heart disease develops, there is something hindering the proper flow of blood to the heart thus preventing the heart from pumping normally. 

Heart disease has been linked to high cholesterol, stress and high-blood pressure. 

Cholesterol is needed for the body to make hormones, plays a part in building healthy cells and aids in digestion. Though cholesterol is made naturally by the body and is essential, too much of it can prevent blood flow to the heart and to the rest of the body. Based on diet or family history, a person might produce more cholesterol than on average, which can build up in the body’s blood vessels.

Elevated levels of cholesterol can create a substance "plaque" that settles within the walls of blood vessels and can reduce blood flow to organs such as the heart. When there is a blockage caused by plaque, the heart cannot get blood, which can contribute to a heart condition called coronary artery disease and could lead to cardiac arrest. High cholesterol also has been linked to life-altering complications including stroke, kidney disease and cognitive decline (because of lack of blood flow to the brain). 

Additionally, stress can increase the risk of heart disease. When a people are anxious or stressed, they tend to be more sedentary, less active and not get the needed flow of blood pumping to the heart. As the heart needs to have some push, exercise is a way to keep the heart healthy. When people are stressed, they also may be unlikely to eat a healthy diet, which can increase the risk of high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. 

Some choose to consume alcohol or smoke as a way to cope with the daily stresses of life. This too can affect overall heart health, as smoking can elevate blood pressure throughout the day. Extended periods of high-blood pressure increase the risk of heart disease. Stress can cause high-blood pressure, as well, and persisent periods of high-blood pressure can lead to cardiovascular disease as blood vessels aren’t meant to sustain high velocity or pressure.

Heart disease can also be linked to a person’s family history. A person is more likely to develop specific diseases including heart disease, if there is a family history. Cholesterol, for example, can be passed down and is known as familial dyslipidemia. If this is the case, be sure to inform a healthcare provider. Sharing this information can help identify heart disease early or decrease the risk of getting it. 

Warning signs, silent symptoms and decreasing risk

There may be some warning signs of heart disease such as chest, neck or shoulder pain, but not everyone will experience symptoms. Some conditions such as hypertension and elevated cholesterol might not be associated with other symptoms and are often referred to as “silent killers.” Thus, it’s important to have an annual exam with a healthcare provider who can listen to your heart, gain insight into your personal and family health history and assess risk factors for a heart attack. 

The good news about heart disease is that there are ways to decrease the risk of developing it including diet, exercise and annual check-ups. 

To keep the heart in top condition, incorporate healthy fruits and leafy vegetables into your diet as well as clean proteins, fibers and whole grains. I also recommend “tasting the rainbow”: eating an array of colorful berries, beans and vegetables, as they are packed with vitamins and antioxidants that can prevent inflammation. For exercise, develop a regular fitness routine or take short walks. Movement is key.

Lastly, continue to invest in maintaining a healthy heart as it is instrumental in the overall functioning of the body. It enables us to carry out everyday tasks and experience the joys of life, and is no doubt one of the most important core pieces of who we are. How we take care of it and ourselves matters. 

Dr. Bayo Curry-Winchell, M.D., M.S., is a board-certified, family medicine physician practicing urgent care physician based in Reno, where she serves as medical director for community engagement and health equity for Carbon Health,  medical director for Saint Mary’s Medical Group and founder of Beyond Clinical Walls.


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