What Practitioners and Patients Should Know During American Heart Month

February marks the beginning of American Heart Month, also known as Heart Disease Awareness Month. During the second month of each year, American healthcare practitioners, patients, activists and more combine their efforts to raise awareness about heart disease and heart disease prevention. As the number one cause of death in the United States, heart disease has affected the lives of millions of patients and their families around the country and the world. American Heart Month was established as an intentional effort to educate the American public about the risks of heart disease and how to make heart health a priority.

Whether you are a patient or a practitioner, prioritizing heart health and incorporating diagnostic checks, healthy eating habits, and regular exercise into our practice and lives is essential for better standards of care and living. In this blog, we’ll shed some light on current heart health statistics and provide resources for both practitioners and patients on heart disease awareness and prevention.

Types of Heart Disease

When discussing heart health, many of us associate this with heart attack prevention. While heart attacks are a symptom of heart disease, there are also several types of heart disease to be aware of.

Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)
The most common type of heart disease in America, Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) is caused by a buildup of plaque in artery walls or other parts of the body that pump blood to the heart. When a person has high cholesterol, cholesterol deposits may begin to form inside the arterial walls which leads to plaque buildup and a narrowing of the arteries. As the plaque worsens, the arteries may become too narrow to sustain regular blood flow, causing partial or complete blockages. This causes problems such as chest pain, shortness of breath, or at worst, a heart attack can result when these plaque build ups rupture and lead to acute occlusions and heart muscle death and unhealthy heart rhythms.

Peripheral Artery Disease
Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD) is also caused by plaque buildup in arterial walls, like CAD, but the buildup is most commonly isolated to the legs or lower extremities. In Peripheral Artery Disease, plaques can block blood flow from the heart to the legs. One of the most common symptoms in patients with PAD can be ischemic pain in the legs, usually onset by routine activity such as walking or other exertional activities.

When a heartbeat is too slow, too fast, or irregular, this is a sign of a heart arrhythmia. While our heart rate naturally increases with exercise and decreases with rest, a heart arrhythmia is distinguished by a continuous problem with the heart rate. Arrhythmias can be caused by several factors, from smoking and drug use to medications and genetics. Common symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, lightheadedness and more.

High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, occurs when the force of blood against the artery walls is consistently too high. This condition can lead to serious health complications, including heart disease, stroke, and kidney problems. Causes of high blood pressure include unhealthy lifestyle habits such as poor diet, lack of physical activity, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and stress. Symptoms may not always be apparent, but they can include shortness of breath, nosebleeds, chest pains, and neurologic symptoms such as headaches, altered mental status, visual changes, and dizziness.

Cardiac Arrest
Cardiac arrest is a sudden loss of heart function, typically caused by an electrical disturbance in the heart that disrupts its pumping action. This condition is life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. Common causes of cardiac arrest include underlying heart conditions like coronary artery disease, heart attack, or arrhythmias. Symptoms include sudden loss of consciousness, absence of pulse, and cessation of breathing.

A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted, either due to a blockage (ischemic stroke) or bleeding (hemorrhagic stroke). This interruption deprives brain cells of oxygen and nutrients, leading to brain damage. Risk factors for stroke include high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle. Symptoms of stroke may include sudden weakness or numbness in the face, arm, or leg, difficulty speaking or understanding speech, sudden severe headache, and/or altered mental status.

Congestive Heart Failure
Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a chronic condition where the heart cannot pump blood effectively in order to meet the body’s needs. It can result from various heart conditions, including coronary artery disease, hypertension, and cardiomyopathy. Symptoms of CHF include shortness of breath (with routine activities or lying down flat), fatigue, swelling in the legs or abdomen, rapid or irregular heartbeat, and persistent coughing or wheezing.

Congenital Heart Disease
Congenital heart disease refers to a range of heart defects present at birth, which affect the heart’s structure and function. These defects can vary widely, from simple conditions with little impact on health to complex defects requiring immediate medical intervention. Causes of congenital heart disease may include genetic factors, maternal health conditions during pregnancy, and exposure to certain medications or toxins. Symptoms can vary depending on the specific defect but may include cyanosis (dusky or bluish skin color), difficulty feeding in the newborn, poor weight gain, and frequent respiratory infections. Early diagnosis and appropriate medical management are essential for managing congenital heart disease effectively.

Key Statistics on Heart Disease

According to the CDC, one person dies of heart disease every 33 seconds in the United States, making it the highest cause of death in the country. It affects people across nearly all demographics, including women, men, and spans across most racial and ethnic groups.

As mentioned above, there are several types of heart disease and each may have unique risk factors depending on the individual type. However, most forms of heart disease that are not congenital can be associated with these risk factors:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Lack of exercise

In addition to the damage heart disease has on our collective health, these conditions also have an economic impact. The CDC states that from 2018 to 2019, heart disease cost the U.S. $239.9 billion each year. This number factors in the costs of health care services, medications, and lost productivity due to patient death.

Why Awareness Matters

Heart disease awareness month, and awareness in general, is crucial for several reasons. First, early detection and prevention are paramount in mitigating the impact of heart disease. By identifying risk factors and implementing preventive and mitigating measures early on, patients can significantly reduce their risk of developing heart-related complications.

Secondly, lifestyle modifications play a pivotal role in promoting heart health and preventing heart disease. Adopting a balanced diet, engaging in regular physical activity, managing stress levels, and avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol use are essential for maintaining optimal cardiovascular health.

Lastly, education and advocacy efforts are crucial in reducing the burden of heart disease on individuals and society. By raising awareness about heart disease risk factors, symptoms, and preventive strategies, we empower individuals to make informed decisions about their health and seek timely medical care when needed. As healthcare practitioners, we must do our due diligence to ensure our patients receive a well-rounded education and informational materials on heart disease and how to navigate related conditions.

Heart Disease Awareness Month Resources for Practitioners

Healthcare practitioners have access to various resources to enhance their understanding and management of heart disease. This includes heart disease screening guidelines and recommendations, which enable them to identify individuals at risk and initiate appropriate interventions early on. Staying updated on the latest advancements in heart disease diagnosis and treatment is also essential for providing high-quality care. Professional organizations, such as the American Heart Association and the CDC, offer toolkits and shareable infographics each year in the month of February for healthcare practitioners to share with patients and colleagues. Additionally, conferences dedicated to cardiovascular health provide valuable networking opportunities and educational resources. These platforms facilitate collaboration, knowledge exchange, and professional development, ultimately enhancing the quality of care delivered to patients.

Heart Disease Awareness Month Resources for Patients

Empowering patients with practical tips for promoting heart-healthy habits in their daily lives is key to preventing and managing heart disease. Simple lifestyle changes, such as eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, managing stress effectively, and getting adequate sleep, can have a significant impact on heart health.

Additionally, support groups and online communities offer invaluable emotional support and practical advice to individuals living with heart disease. Patient education materials and resources provide essential information on managing heart disease effectively. From understanding medications and treatment options to learning about self-care techniques and lifestyle modifications, these resources empower patients to take control of their health and make informed decisions in collaboration with their healthcare providers.

Join the Cause During Heart Disease Awareness Month

Heart Disease Awareness Month serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of prioritizing heart health and fostering awareness about heart disease prevention. By uniting in our efforts to raise awareness, we can make significant strides toward reducing the burden of heart disease on individuals and communities alike.

As healthcare practitioners and as patients, it is important to actively participate in spreading awareness and promoting heart health during American Heart Month and beyond. Together, we can make a meaningful difference in combating heart disease and improving cardiovascular outcomes for all. I encourage each of you to take proactive steps toward heart disease prevention and management, whether it’s adopting heart-healthy habits, seeking regular medical check-ups, or advocating for heart health in your community or medical practice, every effort counts towards creating a healthier future for generations to come.