February 1, 2012

COLUMBIA, Mo. — According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and a major cause of disability.

“Cardiovascular disease includes a number of conditions that affect the heart and its function,” said Mary Dohrmann, M.D., a cardiologist and medical director of University of Missouri Health Care’s cardiac clinic and cardiac rehabilitation service. “Some of these conditions include heart failure, heart valve disease, congenital heart disease, arrhythmias, cardiomyopathy, pericardial disease, aorta disease and vascular disease.”

The most common heart disease in the United States is coronary heart disease, which often appears as a heart attack.

There are several risk factors for coronary heart disease. Some are uncontrollable factors such as age, race, gender and family history. But there are other risk factors that can be controlled, such as smoking, uncontrolled hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, physical inactivity, obesity and stress.

Making lifestyle changes is a proven method for reducing the risk of developing heart disease, Dohrmann said.

“Smoking over time is one of the major risk factors for heart attack and it is a completely preventable risk factor,” said Dohrmann. “My message is to never start – it’s the best thing you never do. But once a person who smokes develops heart disease, it is imperative that they stop.”

Dohrmann explained that smoking promotes the growth of plaque in the arteries of the heart and also leads to hardening of those arteries, which decreases blood flow to the heart muscle as well as to the extremities. The nicotine from smoking also affects heart rate and blood pressure.

“The benefits of quitting smoking are truly immediate,” said Dohrmann. “Within 20 minutes of quitting smoking, blood pressure decreases, heart rate decreases and even the flow of blood to the hands and feet increase so that the temperature of the extremities improves. Within 24 hours of quitting smoking the risk of heart attack decreases, and the longer a person has quit smoking that benefit just continues to increase. A year after quitting smoking a person has half the risk of developing heart disease compared to someone who continues to smoke. And at 15 years the risk is back to that of a non-smoker of the same age. So truly, quitting smoking has not only immediate benefits but long-term benefits as well.”

Some additional recommended methods that can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease include:

• Improving cholesterol levels. Have your cholesterol checked and discuss the results with your physician to learn how you can raise your good high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and how you can lower your bad low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.

• Controlling diabetes, hypertension and stress. Discuss with your physician how medication, a healthy diet and exercise can make a difference.

For those with uncontrollable risk factors or who have already developed cardiovascular disease, making lifestyle changes and seeking the proper treatment is essential.

“It is very important to learn about your heart to help prevent cardiovascular disease,” said Dohrmann. “And if you already have a heart condition, you can live a healthier, more active life by learning about your disease and becoming an active participant in the delivery of your health care.”

For more information about heart health, visit www.muhealth.org/heartmonth.