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Your questions about cardiovascular and heart disease, answered

What is the difference between cardiovascular disease and heart disease? 

These two terms are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Cardiovascular disease is an umbrella term that encompasses several heart conditions, including heart disease, coronary heart disease, stroke, heart failure and peripheral artery disease. 

Coronary heart disease happens when the blood supply to your heart muscle is blocked by plaque buildup in the coronary arteries. It is the most common type of heart disease. 

A stroke occurs when the blood flow — and the oxygen it carries — to the brain is interrupted.

Peripheral artery disease is a blockage in the arteries to your limbs. 

What causes cardiovascular disease?

Your family history can contribute to cardiovascular disease, but there are lifestyle choices that can put you at risk, too. Eating a poor diet, not getting enough exercise, using tobacco and excessive drinking are some of the worst habits for your heart health. They can raise blood pressure and cholesterol and contribute to obesity, which can lead to heart attack or stroke. To decrease your risk of heart problems, manage these behavioral risk factors, stay on top of treating other health conditions, avoid smoking, eat a healthy diet and exercise.

BJC HealthCare offers a free heart health risk quiz. This quick assessment can help you discover important information about your heart health and risk factors. It will:

  • Compare your actual age to your heart's biological age.

  • Calculate your 10-year risk of developing cardiovascular disease. If you are younger than 60, you will also learn your 30-year risk of cardiovascular disease.

  • Prioritize your most harmful cardiovascular risk factors.

What are the signs and symptoms of cardiovascular disease?

Warning signs include chest pain that can be caused by low blood flow to the heart, also called angina. Another warning sign can be swelling, or edema, in the lower part of the legs, which might signal that the heart is weak or abnormal venous blood flow out of the extremities. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, sweating, dizziness and palpitations. 

Do heart disease symptoms differ between men and women?

It’s important to watch for the signs above, but also keep in mind that men are more likely to have chest pain when experiencing coronary heart disease while women are more likely to experience discomfort in their chest, fatigue, nausea or shortness of breath.  

What is a silent heart attack?

“Silent” heart attacks happen when a heart attack has no symptoms, mild symptoms or symptoms that you might not associate with a heart attack. Those might include feeling like you have the flu; aches in your chest, upper back, jaw or arms; fatigue or indigestion. Your doctor can diagnose whether you’ve had a heart attack with a physical and testing.  

What is life expectancy after a heart attack?

According to the American Heart Association, most people go on to live productive lives after a first heart attack. However, more than a quarter of people who have a heart attack are readmitted to the hospital within 90 days of their cardiac event. Having a second heart attack during that time period is linked to a 50 percent risk of dying over the next five years. Because of that statistic, it’s important to prevent a second heart attack by following your providers’ treatment plan, taking any necessary medication, attending follow-up appointments and managing the risk factors you can control. For people who have experienced a heart attack or stroke, taking a daily aspirin has been shown to help prevent a second one.

How do you keep your heart healthy?

Eating healthy; staying active; maintaining a healthy weight; avoiding smoking, alcohol and stress and staying on top of your cholesterol and blood pressure are all excellent ways to prevent disease

Exercise is one of the most effective ways to work on your heart health. Movement, when paired with a healthy diet, will help you reach or maintain a healthy weight, and it can lower your risk of developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes, which contribute to cardiovascular and heart disease. It can also help you manage stress. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity and two or more strength training sessions per week.

If you’re not quite there, don’t give up. Even small amounts of exercise count. 

What foods prevent cardiovascular and heart disease? 

Eating a healthy diet can help you maintain a healthy weight and prevent high blood pressure and cholesterol. Add foods rich in plant-based fiber such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains and beans, as well as unsaturated fats such as nuts and olive oil and omega-3s including fish. Cut back on salt, sugar, saturated fat and alcohol. Diets high in sodium contribute to high blood pressure, and too much sugar increases your risk for developing diabetes. The next time you go to the grocery store, take a heart-healthy shopping list with you.

Can I live a normal life with cardiovascular or heart disease?

This answer depends on your definition of normal. If you’ve been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, you might want to make changes to your lifestyle, including your diet and the amount of exercise you get each week. But many people who have experienced a cardiac event go on to enjoy full lives.

Can you recover from heart disease? 

The disease can’t be reversed, but you can manage it. Control what you can, like lifestyle factors, and stay on top of the treatment plan prescribed by your doctor so your symptoms don’t worsen.  

Want to learn more about cardiovascular and heart disease, prevention and treatment? BJC HealthCare is offering free blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose screenings with an evaluation by a health care professional. Appointments are available between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday, February 24, at Memorial Hospital Shiloh’s main hospital lobby. Visit bjc.org/heartscreenings to learn more.

Feel that you need to consult a heart specialist? With offices conveniently located around St. Louis and across Missouri and Illinois, BJC’s team of cardiologists and primary care physicians are ready to support you. Visit bjc.org/heart for more information. 

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