According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, women and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States. In addition, more than 650,000 Americans die from heart disease each year, which comes out to one in every four deaths. 

“Heart disease is any pathologic process that leads to a breakdown in the heart’s ability to perform its function,” says Richard Kacere, a cardiologist with Ascension St. John Medical Center in Tulsa. “The most common type of heart disease is coronary artery disease – the basic process where the arteries develop plaque buildup and blockages which restrict blood flow.”

He says those at highest risk to develop heart disease, especially of the coronary arteries, are those with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and a family history for heart disease at a young age. 

Christina Murray, a cardiologist with OU Health in Oklahoma City, says coronary heart disease can affect people younger than you might think.

“Two in ten are less than 65 years of age,” says Murray. “We see the classical type of heart attack – STEMI – even in people in their 30s. Incidence rates, or how likely someone in the population is to suffer the disease, are overall down, but still too common.”

She says the newer blood pressure guidelines are more aggressive than those used in the past.

“Normal blood pressure is defined as a 120/80,” says Murray. “Though people may feel ‘normal’ at a higher blood pressure, over time, that may take a toll. We often find that there are subtle symptoms, such as shortness of breath, chest tightness or even fatigue that can be improved with treatment of elevated blood pressure.”

Other common heart diseases include heart failure and atrial fibrillation.

“Heart failure is classically thought of as fluid retention associated with shortness of breath and swelling … and can be very manageable with medications and improve significantly over time,” says Murray. “Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heartbeat, which puts you at risk for stroke or heart failure if not well-managed. Today’s engaged patient may detect their own rhythm abnormality through use of an Apple watch or another wearable. It’s important to then partner with a physician on controlling the disease and assessing need for other medications, such as blood thinners.”

Kacere says many heart disease risk factors are preventable and can be improved by lifestyle changes.

“It has been well established that populations of people around the world who eat a mostly plant-based diet of a broad spectrum of whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts tend to have much lower rates of heart disease,” says Kacere. “These people also tend to live healthier lifestyles in general, with daily exercise of some kind, community relationships, practicing a faith, getting adequate sleep, etc.”

Murray offers the following heart healthy recommendations:

  • Control your blood pressure;
  • Don’t smoke, and avoid exposure to secondhand smoke or tobacco;
  • Manage your cholesterol and start medications if you are in key risk groups – elevated cholesterol, diabetic or known vascular disease;
  • Follow a heart healthy diet (DASH/DASH Mediterranean) and when appropriate, restrict sodium;
  • Get regular exercise (150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise or 75 minutes per week of high intensity exercise);

“Most importantly, don’t be afraid to seek help from a physician,” says Murray. “Cardiology and primary care physicians are dedicated to helping to you improve outcomes and will be eager to partner with you to get you on the right path.”