Over the last decade, I’ve become increasingly conscious of maintaining my cardiovascular health, making dietary changes and keeping my blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check. Heart disease is preventable and taking sensible steps can help a person dodge the No. 1 killer in our country. It claims more lives than strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza, pneumonia and accidents combined.
One in four U.S. deaths is attributable to heart disease, but at least 200,000 of those could be prevented each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC says high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and smoking are the three leading causes of heart disease. In addition to putting down the cigarettes, one of the best ways to stay heart-healthy is to eat food low in trans-fat, saturated fat, sodium and sugar. Also, everyone should strive for at least 2 ½ hours of physical activity per week to get your heart pumping, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health.
Heart disease, of course, can lead to heart attacks. Life-threatening coronary events often seem to come on suddenly and unexpectedly, but the cardiovascular disease that produces heart attacks can occur over time, unbeknownst to an affected person. That’s why it’s important – and potentially life-saving – to know the warning signs of a heart attack.
You may have heard stories of people who suffered a heart attack but didn’t know it was occurring. That’s because some symptoms are not readily associated with the heart. Almost half of sudden cardiac deaths occur outside a hospital according to the CDC, which suggests many people may not be acting on early warning signs. The more time that goes by without seeking help from a medical professional, the greater the damage can be to the heart muscle. Doctors says it’s crucial to get to the hospital within 90 minutes of a heart attack to ensure blood flow is restored to the heart.
One classic symptom of a heart attack is pain radiating down the left side of the body. Feeling dizzy or lightheaded – along with chest discomfort – are other potential indicators. However, symptoms of a heart attack can differ based on gender. Women sometimes describe severe exhaustion, fainting spells and headaches, while men can report nausea, indigestion, heartburn and even stomach pain. Other signs of a possible heart attack include swollen legs, sweating, a coughing fit, and feeling fatigued after doing something you had no problem with in the past, such as climbing stairs.
High cholesterol levels can increase the risk of heart attack. When there is a high amount of cholesterol in our bloodstream, an excess amount can find its way into the arteries. Eventually, it can harden into plaque causing atherosclerosis, which has the potential to prevent blood flow to the heart.
Encouragingly, the death rate from heart disease has fallen by 39 percent over the past decade, and biomedical innovation is a big reason why. In a single year in America, cholesterol-lowering statins save 40,000 lives, prevent 60,000 heart attacks, and avert 22,000 strokes. Over one in five Americans between the ages of 40 and 75 currently take a statin to reduce cholesterol and the risk of heart attack and stroke. I am one of them.
“Bad” cholesterol, known as LDL, is still the single most important risk factor for developing heart disease. In the last two years, statins have been paired with a new biological medication called PCSK9 inhibitors that can lower cholesterol by as much as 60 percent. They target a known protein that destroys LDL receptors, which sit on the surface of liver cells and remove cholesterol from the blood. High-intensity statins reduce cholesterol by up to 50 percent, but if a PCSK9 inhibitor is added, cholesterol levels are reduced even more.
Researchers are also studying how reducing inflammation can reduce the risk of a heart attack. Results of a Phase III study last summer revealed that targeting inflammation can reduce major adverse cardiovascular events in people with a prior heart attack. “The results are exciting because we now have clear evidence that in addition to lowering cholesterol, targeting inflammation reduces patients’ risk of cardiovascular disease,” said Dr. Paul Ridker, who chaired the study.
February is American Heart Month. As the biotechnology sector continues to explore and pioneer new approaches in the fight against heart disease, be sure to encourage your loved ones to take control of their diets, medication management and physical activity to increase your odds of living longer, happier and healthier lives together.