If there is one organ that should not be ignored, it's the heart. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both women and men in the United States. That’s why this February, as the nation observes Heart Month, UAB News is focusing on ways for you to better tend to your ticker, from how to have a heart-healthy diet to what men and women can do to make a difference in the status of their heart health. We want to remind you of the basics and educate you on the latest information that can potentially save your life.
Food is your friend and your biggest foe. A healthy diet sustains us, but a poor diet can raise blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar levels and weight and put you at risk for heart disease.
“Diet is just one component of the overall cause of heart disease,” says Donna Arnett, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Epidemiology in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health and president-elect of the American Heart Association. But, Arnett says, it can exert a strong influence.
Heart disease is the most common cause of death for both men and women in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol can lead to atherosclerosis, or a hardening of the arteries caused by build-up of plaque.
Sodium also is considered the culprit for the one in three Americans who develops high blood pressure. Sodium attracts water into your cells; the increased fluid raises your blood pressure and subsequently raises your risk of stroke and heart attack, heart failure and death, Arnett says.
Race also plays a role in risk. UAB researchers recently examined the effects of sodium intake by race using data from the ongoing Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke and found a stronger association with death in black participants than whites, says Suzanne Judd, assistant professor of biostatistics at UAB and the study’s lead author. Blacks with the highest sodium intake (average of 2,600 mg/day) had a 62 percent increased risk of dying, while whites had no increased risk, she said.
The healthy heart movement in recent years has focused largely on heart disease as the No. 1 killer of women. But the same statistic is true for men, and the reality is grim: The first sign that a man has coronary heart disease could be death, says one University of Alabama at Birmingham expert.
Coronary heart disease is caused by a buildup of plaque in the arteries to your heart, affecting the flow of blood and oxygen to your ticker. More than half of the deaths due to heart disease in 2008 were in men, and coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Half of the men who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms,” says Alan Gertler, M.D., associate professor of medicine in UAB’s Division of Cardiovascular Diseases and part of UAB’s Heart & Vascular Services. “The first manifestation of a heart problem oftentimes is sudden death.”
So where do the men’s heart problems start? Gertler says it can date very early in life.
If you ask women to name the No. 1 cause of death, most will say cancer. But University of Alabama at Birmingham experts say more women die from heart disease than all forms of cancer combined, and many of these deaths are preventable.
“One of every three women will die of heart disease,” says Donna Arnett, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Epidemiology in the UAB School of Public Health. Arnett, who is president-elect of the American Heart Association, says one in eight women get breast cancer and as many as 94% survive, yet women are more afraid of cancer than heart disease.
“I think with all the media coverage of breast cancer, women are unaware that heart disease actually kills more women, young and old,” Arnett says.
“For some reason women still don’t perceive themselves to be at risk for heart disease,” says Vera Bittner, M.D., professor of medicine in UAB’s Division of Cardiovascular Disease and section head of Preventive Cardiology.
“Women see it as a men’s disease, and they are more likely to interpret chest discomfort as coming from indigestion instead of a heart attack,” says Bittner.