What Does Heart Disease Mean?

Cardiovascular disease (also called heart disease) includes different problems, many of which are related to a process called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a condition that develops when a substance called plaque builds up in the walls of the arteries. This buildup narrows the arteries, making it harder for blood to flow through. If a blood clot forms, it can stop the blood flow. This can cause a heart attack or stroke.

Cardiovascular disease is the second leading cause of death in Vermont (Cancer is #1). For a complete look at CVD in Vermont, including prevalence, geographic distribution, hospitalization trends, mortality, co-morbidities, chronic disease risk factors: Cardiovascular Disease Data Pages.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when the blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked by a blood clot. If this clot cuts off the blood flow completely, the part of the heart muscle supplied by that artery begins to die. Most people survive their first heart attack and return to their normal lives to enjoy many more years of productive activity. But having a heart attack does mean you have to make some changes. Your health care provider can advise you of medications and lifestyle changes according to how badly the heart was damaged and what degree of heart disease caused the heart attack. Learn more about heart attack.

What is a stroke?

An ischemic stroke (the most common type) happens when a blood vessel that feeds the brain gets blocked, usually from a blood clot. When the blood supply to a part of the brain is shut off, brain cells will die. The result will be the inability to carry out some of the previous functions as before like walking or talking. A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a blood vessel within the brain bursts. The most likely cause is uncontrolled high blood pressure.

Some effects of stroke are permanent if too many brain cells die after a stroke due to lack of blood and oxygen to the brain. These cells are never replaced. The good news is that some brain cells don't die — they're only temporarily out of order. Injured cells can repair themselves. Over time, as the repair takes place, some body functioning improves. Also, other brain cells may take control of those areas that were injured. In this way, strength may improve, speech may get better and memory may improve. This recovery process is what rehabilitation is all about. Learn more about stroke.

What is heart failure?

This doesn't mean that the heart stops beating. Heart failure, sometimes called congestive heart failure, means the heart isn't pumping blood as well as it should. The heart keeps working, but the body's need for blood and oxygen isn't being met. Heart failure can get worse if it's not treated. If your loved one has heart failure, it's very important to follow the doctor's orders. Learn more about heart failure.

What is arrhythmia?

This is an abnormal rhythm of the heart. There are various types of arrhythmias. The heart can beat too slow, too fast or irregularly. Bradycardia is when the heart rate is less than 60 beats per minute. Tachycardia is when the heart rate is more than 100 beats per minute. An arrhythmia can affect how well the heart works. The heart may not be able to pump enough blood to meet the body's needs. Learn more about arrhythmia.

What are heart valve problems?

When heart valves don't open enough to allow the blood to flow through as it should, it's called stenosis. When the heart valves don't close properly and allow blood to leak through, it's called regurgitation. When the valve leaflets bulge or prolapse back into the upper chamber, it’s a condition called mitral valve prolapse. When this happens, they may not close properly. This allows blood to flow backward through them. Discover more about the roles your heart valves play in healthy circulation. Learn more about heart valve disease.

Preventing Heart Disease

Cardiovascular disease (or heart disease) is caused by both preventable and unpreventable risk factors. Risk factors are conditions or habits that make a person more likely to develop a disease. They can also increase the chances that an existing disease will get worse.

Risk factors: Preventable and Non-preventable

Risk factors that can be changed –

Risk Factors that cannot be changed –

  • Age: About four out of five heart disease deaths are in people older than 65. Unfortunately, the cumulative effects of aging increase heart disease risk.
  • Sex: Heart disease is more prevalent in men than in women, and men are at greater risk before age 65. After age 65, this difference largely disappears. 
  • Race/Ethnicity: Heart disease is the number one cause of death nationally. African Americans die from heart disease at a 30% higher rate than whites, but American Indians, Asians, and Hispanics all die of heart disease at lower rates than whites.
  • Family History: Several studies have shown that heart disease risk is increased for individuals with family members who have heart disease. This risk factor of “family history” includes not only the genetic inheritance of heart disease risk factors, but also the sharing of cultural, environmental, and lifestyle factors within families that increase risk of heart disease.


What do I Need to Know About Blood Pressure?

What is blood pressure?

Blood pressure is typically recorded as two numbers, written as a ratio like this: 120/80.

The systolic, the top number, which is the higher of the two numbers, measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats (when the heart muscle contracts).

The diastolic, the bottom number, which is the lower of the two numbers, measures the pressure in the arteries between heartbeats (when the heart muscle is resting between beats and refilling with blood).

Typically, more attention is given to the top number (the systolic blood pressure) as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease for people over 50 years old. In most people, systolic blood pressure rises steadily with age due to increasing stiffness of large arteries, long-term build-up of plaque, and increased incidence of cardiac and vascular disease.

What is high blood pressure?

High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is both a disease and a risk factor for other diseases.

Even though it typically has no symptoms, hypertension can have deadly health consequences if not treated.

In 2013 one-quarter of Vermont adults had been diagnosed with high blood pressure, and most are expected to develop hypertension by their senior years.

Recommendations for blood pressure

A single high reading does not necessarily mean that a person has high blood pressure.

However, if readings stay at 140/90 mm Hg or above (systolic 140 or above OR diastolic 90 or above) over time, a patient’s provider will likely want them to begin a treatment program. Such a program almost always includes lifestyle changes and often prescription medication. 

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Why does high blood pressure mean?

Over time, hypertension can quietly damage the body for years before symptoms develop. Left uncontrolled, hypertension can lead to:
•    Artery damage and narrowing
•    Aneurysm
•    Coronary Artery Disease
•    Heart Failure
•    Stroke
•    Heart Attack
•    Kidney Damage

Treating high blood pressure

Fortunately, hypertension can be treated clinically and by making lifestyle changes. Clinical treatment usually involves taking an anti-hypertensive medication. By making the following lifestyle changes, people can control high blood pressure to reduce the risk of life-threatening complications: 

•    Healthy eating
•    Exercise  
•    Weight loss  
•    Not using tobacco

Monitoring your blood pressure

People with hypertension can monitor their blood pressure in a number of ways.

Regular visits to a primary care provider where blood pressure is measured and assessed will help patients and their providers stay aware of their blood pressure and whether an intervention needs to take place. 

Many community pharmacies (in grocery stores and pharmacies) have automatic blood pressure machines available where you can measure your own blood pressure free of charge. 

Other community locations, such as libraries and community centers, often have blood pressure measurement machines available for use.  

You can also get blood pressure machines to use at home. A blood pressure machine (also called a blood pressure monitor) is a portable device that lets you take your own blood pressure at home.

Visit the American Heart Association to learn more about choosing the right home blood pressure monitor.

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