Our heart is truly amazing, especially when you consider that it is the size of our two hands clasped together. Our heart is responsible for delivering blood to every single one of the estimated 3 trillion cells in our body. In just one day, it beats 100,000 times; that equates to 2.5 billion beats over our lifetime. And, in just one day, it pumps blood over a total distance of 12,000 miles; that is four times the distance of our country, from sea to shining sea.
Keeping our heart healthy is something we should all take to heart, all year long. Don’t wait for February — American Heart Month — to roll around each year, when awareness is “officially” raised about heart disease, the number one killer of Americans, both men and women.
Although this term is an umbrella for a number of conditions, it is often used interchangeably to describe cardiovascular disease.
What is cardiovascular disease?
It refers to a number of abnormal conditions that affect the heart vessels. Atherosclerosis is the primary culprit, and this term stems from the Greek word athere meaning “porridge,” and sclerosis meaning “hardening.”
And this is a very apt description: atherosclerosis begins with soft, porridge-like fatty deposits that eventually harden into plaques.
Similar to rust buildup within a pipe, the resultant plaques can cause narrowing or blockage of heart vessels and prevent an adequate supply of blood to our ticker.
What is this “porridge” we are referring to? Too much low-density lipoprotein (LDL), smoking, high blood pressure,
or diabetes can result in damage to our blood vessels. When this occurs, LDL, a form of cholesterol that circulates in our blood, can enter the wall of the artery. And because our immune system sees the accumulation of LDL in the vessel wall as abnormal, they enter as well and try to digest it. This can result in a “plaque”: a clump that is comprised of LDL, immune cells, and other debris.
What’s wrong with a little clump of plaque?
The plaque has one of the following fates:
—Stays the same size or grows slightly, but does not block blood flow or create symptoms.
—Grows large enough to decrease blood flow, causing the organ it feeds to become chronically oxygen-deprived. Imagine our heart, brain, or kidneys not getting the needed oxygen, energy, or nutrients; it can impair proper function. In some instances, we see symptoms occur when an organ’s oxygen demand increases more than its supply. For example, when we exert ourselves by going up a flight of stairs or lifting something heavy, our heart is working harder and needs more oxygen.
Because of blockage of blood flow, a person with atherosclerosis may not receive an adequate supply of oxygen and can experience chest pain, known as angina.
—Ruptures from the shearing stress of blood flow, or other injury, and causes complete blockage of the vessel. This occurs because the body tries to contain the damage by sending swarms of immune cells to attack the exposed contents and clotting cells to stop the bleeding.
Although it is a noble cause, the body’s response can lead to complete blockage of blood flow. Cell death, or infarction, can occur within a matter of minutes.
I’ve heard the terms ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ cholesterol. How can cholesterol be good?
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is often referred to as “good” cholesterol because it helps remove LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol from the arteries. This results in decreased plaque formation.
Consequently, high levels of good cholesterol may be protective against heart disease, stroke, and kidney injury due to
Atherosclerosis is something I will worry about down the road, right?
Wrong! Fatty plaque buildup has been shown to begin as early as 15 years of age.
How can I stop (and possibly reverse) atherosclerosis?
—Decrease “bad” cholesterol levels. Consuming foods high in cholesterol can contribute to atherosclerosis. Fortunately, there are a number of delectable delights that can help lower LDL levels: oatmeal, nuts, beans and legumes, olive oil, and possibly red wine. In some instances, our doctor may determine that a cholesterol-lowering medication is appropriate.
—Maintain normal blood pressure. In addition to thickening our blood vessels, high blood pressure can also damage them. Staying physically active and lowering salt intake and stress are important. If we are diagnosed with hypertension, there are a number of medications that can help manage it. They work best when lifestyle changes are also implemented.
—Control diabetes. It is a well-known fact that diabetes accelerates the development of atherosclerosis. By keeping blood sugars well-controlled, it can help normalize this effect.
—Avoid (or stop) smoking. Smoking damages the walls of our arteries, allowing LDL to enter and begin plaque formation.
—Become physically active. I always say that this is a win-win-win situation. Physical activity decreases LDL levels, weight, and our risk for diabetes and hypertension. At the same time, it increases HDL levels and nitric oxide production. Nitric oxide dilates blood vessels and can help with circulation.
Our heart is truly amazing. Not only does it provide oxygen and fuel to every single of the 3 trillion cells in our body, it also transcends our worldly understanding. For example, “Why do we close our eyes when we pray, cry, kiss, or dream? Because the most beautiful things in life are not seen but felt only by the heart.” Let’s take care of our heart: our lives… and passions… depend upon it.