APU Health & Fitness Original

Cardiovascular Health and Avoiding Problems with Your Heart

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cardiovascular health refers to the overall wellbeing and vigor of your heart and blood vessels (arteries, veins, and capillaries) that circulate life-sustaining blood throughout your body. The importance of immediate medical care for cardiovascular emergencies was recently illustrated after the cardiac arrest of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin during the Jan. 2 NFL Monday Night Football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, according to Fox News.

Cardiac arrest is very rare in sports. Fortunately, on-field medical personnel provided lifesaving care to Hamlin within seconds. Also, WIVB noted that Bills’ assistant athletic trainer Denny Kellington used an automated external defibrillator (AED) to restart Hamlin’s heart when the heart attack occurred.

Unfortunately, most people suffering from a heart attack or cardiac arrest do not receive medical care as rapidly as Hamlin did. So during American Heart Month, it’s a good time to learn more about protecting your cardiovascular health.

RELATED: Do You Know All the Risk Factors for Heart Disease? (Part I)

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Cardiac arrest and a heart attack are very different.

What Is the Difference Between a Cardiac Arrest and a Heart Attack?

Cardiac arrests are most often due to an internal electrical disturbance causing the heart to stop beating. By contrast, heart attacks are most often due to circulation blockages in the coronary arteries.

Heart attacks can cause a cardiac arrest. However, not all heart attacks result in cardiac arrest and not all cardiac arrests are due to a heart attack, so it’s important to know the difference.

Hamlin reportedly experienced commotio cordis (Latin for “agitation or disruption of heart”), according to MSN. Following a blow to the chest, he had an almost immediate abnormal heart rhythm and cardiac arrest.

RELATED: Do You Know All the Risk Factors for Heart Disease? (Part II)

The Terms Signs and Symptoms Are Often Used Interchangeably, But They Have Distinctly Different Meanings

It’s important to note that signs and symptoms have distinctly different meanings. Signs are objective and observable by others. They are most often directly measurable, such as heart rate (bpm), blood pressure (mm Hg), temperature (degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius), weight gain/loss (pounds or kilograms), evidence from medical imaging (X-ray, MRI, and ultrasound), swelling, bleeding, open fractures, skin rash size and color, and coordination. 

Symptoms are subjective and most often cannot be directly observed by others. Symptoms include pain, internal fatigue, soreness, anxiety, itching, nausea, uneasiness, headache, and sensation abnormalities (vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste).  Signs, symptoms, and various testing protocols are often used together to make a formal diagnosis.

What Are the Typical Symptoms of a Cardiovascular Health Problem?

Often, the human body provides us with symptoms when our cardiovascular health is affected. These symptoms include:

  • Pain or pressure in chest
  • Pain or discomfort in either arm, the left shoulder, the elbows, the jaw or the back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea and fatigue
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Cold sweats

What Questions Do Emergency First Responders Ask to Help Them in Assessing a Patient’s Cardiovascular Health?

First responders commonly ask six important health history questions to an alert person who is suffering a sudden illness, such as a cardiovascular health problem. If that person is unconscious, then the first responder will ask a family member or friend.

According to Emergency First Response, these questions can be easily remembered using the acronym SAMPLE:

  • S – Signs and symptoms (note: symptoms are important, but they are subjective)
  • A – Allergies
  • M – Medications
  • P – Past illnesses
  • L – Last oral intake (Sometimes, this question might be Last Menstrual Cycle)
  • E – Events that led to a patient’s sudden illness

What Diseases and Conditions Directly Affect the Heart?

There are several diseases and conditions that can impact cardiovascular health. They include:

  • Angina – a type of chest pain due to decreased heart blood flow
  • Arrhythmia – an irregular heartbeat or heart rhythm
  • Congenital heart disease – a problem with heart function or structure that is present from birth
  • Coronary artery disease (CAD) – the reduced flow of blood from the coronary arteries that feed the heart’s muscles
  • Heart attack – a sudden blockage in the blood flow and oxygen supply to the heart
  • Heart failure – the heart cannot contract or relax normally
  • Dilated cardiomyopathy – a type of heart failure that occurs when heart gets larger and cannot pump blood efficiently
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – the heart’s muscle walls thicken, causing problems with relaxation of the heart muscle, blood flow and electrical instability
  • Mitral valve prolapse – a part of the heart’s mitral valve bulges back into the left atrium of the heart, causing mitral regurgitation (blood leaks back through the mitral valve during the heart’s contractions
  • Pulmonary stenosis – the narrowing of a pulmonary artery that reduced blood flow from the heart’s right ventricle to the pulmonary artery (a blood vessel that carries deoxygenated blood to the lungs)
  • Aortic stenosis – a narrowing of the aortic valve that blocks the flow of blood leaving the heart
  • Atrial fibrillation – an irregular rhythm that increases a patient’s risk of stroke
  • Rheumatic heart disease – a complication that occurs after a patient suffers strep throat, resulting in heart inflammation and the function of heart valves
  • Radiation heart disease – radiation therapy to the chest area can sometimes damage the heart valves and blood vessels

What Vascular Diseases Affect Arteries, Veins or Capillaries?

In addition to cardiovascular diseases or conditions, problems with the arteries, veins and capillaries can impact cardiovascular health. These problems include:

  • Peripheral artery disease – the arteries become narrower and reduce blood flow to the limbs
  • Aneurysm – a bulge or enlargement in an artery that can rupture and bleed
  • Atherosclerosis – plaque forms along walls of blood vessels, narrowing and restricting the flow of oxygen-rich blood
  • Renal artery disease – this condition affects blood flow to and from kidneys, which can lead to high blood pressure
  • Raynaud’s disease – this medical problem causes the arteries to spasm and temporarily restrict blood flow
  • Peripheral venous disease – this condition occurs when there is general damage to the veins that transport blood from feet and arms back to heart, causing leg swelling and varicose veins
  • Ischemic stroke –a blood clot thrown into circulation from another area of the body restricts blood flow to the brain
  • Venous blood clots – blood clots may break loose and become dangerous if they travel to the pulmonary artery
  • Blood clotting disorders – blood clots form too quickly or not quickly enough after an injury, leading to excessive bleeding or clotting
  • Buerger’s disease – blood clots and inflammation often occur in the legs, which may result in gangrene

What Are Some Risk Factors for Poor Cardiovascular Health?

There are multiple risk factors for poor cardiovascular health. Sometimes, these risk factors are hereditary, but other risk factors can be minimized by making lifestyle changes. These risk factors include:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Atherosclerosis (plaque blockages in the arteries)
  • Radiation therapy
  • Cigarette/cigar smoking and vaping
  • High blood cholesterol (hyperlipidemia)
  • Diabetes
  • Excessive dietary intake of fat, sugar and alcohol
  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity
  • Sleep apnea and poor sleep hygiene
  • Stress
  • Air pollution

Does Aspirin Protect Against Cardiovascular Disease?

In the past, many people have routinely taken a daily aspirin to protect against cardiovascular disease on the advice of a healthcare provider. However, this practice is no longer recommended for most people due to the risk of inappropriate bleeding, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. But a personal physician may still suggest aspirin if a patient has already had a heart attack or stroke, or the patient is at a high risk of a cardiovascular incident and has a low risk of bleeding.

Cardiovascular Disease Is the Most Common Cause of Death Globally

Cardiovascular diseases are the most common cause of death globally, according to the World Health Organization. But at least there are often warning signs and symptoms, and behavioral changes and medications can reduce the risk of further cardiovasculuar health problems and possible surgery.  

Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D., received his B.S. from Colorado State University/Fort Collins, a M.A. from the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill, and a Ph.D. from the University of Utah/Salt Lake City and has been a faculty member in the School of Health Sciences, Department of Sports and Health Sciences, since 2015. As a regular columnist in encyclopedias and popular magazines, Dr. Graetzer greatly enjoys helping bridge communication gaps between recent breakthroughs in practical application of developing scientific theories and societal well-being.

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