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February is American Heart Month

While we usually focus on issues related to cancer on this blog, some health issues are so pervasive that they deserve time and consideration here, and cardiovascular disease is one of them.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, meaning it is more lethal than all forms of cancer put together. When you take into account other vascular diseases such as stroke, the fourth leading cause of death, cardiovascular disease is responsible for every 1 in 3 deaths each year. And yet an estimated 200,000 of these deaths, nearly a quarter, are preventable.

What is Cardiovascular Disease?

Cardiovascular disease, heart disease, coronary heart disease, stroke, cardiac arrest, heart attack – all of these terms can be confusing, especially when some are used interchangeably. We’ve broken down some of the major components of CVD here for you, as well as symptoms, risk factors, and how you can try to prevent an occurrence from happening in the first place.


Heart disease: an umbrella term for several conditions such as coronary heart disease, angina, arrhythmia, heart failure, myocardial infarction, and others. Coronary heart disease is by far the most common.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD): often used interchangeably with heart disease, but it technically refers to diseases of the heart and blood vessels, such as stroke.

Atherosclerosis: the process in which plaque (cholesterol deposits) builds up in the arteries, narrowing the arteries and making it more difficult for blood to flow through. Over time, an area of plaque can rupture inside of the artery, which causes a blood clot and may result in a heart attack or stroke.

Coronary Heart Disease (CHD): the most common type of heart disease and number one cause of heart attacks. It is the result of atherosclerosis, which limits the amount of oxygen-rich blood flowing to the heart. Overtime it can weaken the heart muscle and cause heart failure.

Coronary Artery Disease (CAD): it is the same as CHD and used interchangeably.

Stroke: it occurs when oxygen-rich blood flow to the brain is blocked, killing brain cells. This is typically due to a blood clot (an ischemic stroke), but can also be the result of a bursting blood vessel (a hemorrhagic stroke), which is often caused by uncontrolled hypertension. 

Heart Attack (aka Myocardial Infarction): it occurs when oxygen-rich blood flow to the heart is blocked by a blood clot, due to atherosclerosis, which causes part of the heart muscle to be damaged or die.

Cardiac Arrest: it occurs when there is an electrical malfunction leading to arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat, which prohibits the heart from properly pumping out blood to the body. With a lack of oxygen-rich blood to vital organs, such as the brain, the organs start to shut down and can lead to sudden cardiac death. Most heart attacks do not cause cardiac arrest, yet most cardiac arrests are caused by heart attacks. 


In all cases, if you experience or observe any of the signs or symptoms of a heart attack, stroke, or cardiac arrest, call 9-1-1 immediately to get the fastest care possible. In the case of cardiac arrest, call 9-1-1 and get an AED or begin CPR until an AED arrives. And to help you recognize the signs of a stroke, remember that the symptoms appear suddenly and think “FAST”: Face, Arms, Speech, and Time to call 9-1-1.

Heart Attack


Cardiac Arrest

Chest pain or discomfort: it can last for more than a few minutes or go away and come back. It’s often described as uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, or fullness. Face drooping:one side of the face may droop or feel numb.If you aren’t sure, ask the person to smile and see if one side droops more than the other. Sudden loss of responsiveness: the person doesn’t respond to tapping on the shoulders
Pain or discomfort in other areas of the upper body:jaw, neck, back, stomach, or even arms Arm weakness: one arm may feel weak or numb.If you aren’t sure, ask the person to raise both arms and see if one drifts down. Abnormal breathing: the person does not take a normal breath when you tilt their head up and check for at least 5 seconds
Shortness of breath Speech difficulties: speech may be slurred, strange, or the person may be unable to speak.If you aren’t sure, ask the person to repeat a simple phrase to see if they can repeat it correctly.
Others: feeling weak, light-headed, or faint; nausea; cold sweats Coordination problems: loss of balance or coordination, trouble walking, or dizziness.
  Head problems: sudden, severe and unexplained headache or vision problems in one or both eyes.

Risk Factors

  • Age
  • Family history of heart disease and stroke
  • Diabetes*
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Overweight/obesity
  • Smoking
  • Poor diet
  • Physical Inactivity

Unfortunately some of these are non-modifiable, but many are modifiable, meaning you can take charge and reduce your risk of CVD by making healthier changes in your lifestyle. Gender is often included as well, as men have a greater risk of heart disease than pre-menopausal women. However, once past menopause, the risk is more similar, as is the case with the risk of stroke between all men and women. *While type 1 diabetes is not a modifiable condition, type 2 is, and in both cases it is uncontrolled hyperglycemia, or high blood sugars, that increases cardiovascular risk, which is modifiable.


Taking into account the major modifiable risk factors for CVD, the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association came up with seven easy steps that people can take to improve their heart health: “Life’s Simple 7.”

You can learn why these seven steps are crucial for heart health and what you can do to reduce your risk by visiting the My Life Check website. You can also do a self-assessment to see how your current lifestyle matches up to the “Life’s Simple Seven” goals.

By making positive changes and reducing your risk of CVD, you’re also supporting a larger health initiative, Million Hearts, by helping them achieve the goal of preventing 1 million heart attacks and strokes by 2017. Similar to the self-assessment tool on My Life Check, the Million Hearts website has an online calculator tool to determine your 10-year risk of a heart attack or dying from coronary heart disease. It will also tell you how small adjustments in specific risk factors can reduce your risk, as well as if you’re at risk for metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that raise your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. And it will even help you make a plan to reduce your risk and track your heart health through the Heart360 tool, also available on the site.


Caryn Huneke is completing her dietetic internship and MS degree in Nutrition Education at Teachers College, Columbia University to become a Registered Dietitian.


  1. Leading Causes of Death – FASTSTATS. CDC. Accessed on February 14, 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/lcod.htm
  2. Preventable Deaths From Heart Disease & Stroke – Vital Signs. CDC. Accessed February 14, 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/heartdisease-stroke/index.html
  3. February is American Heart Month. CDC. Accessed on February 13, 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/features/heartmonth/
  4. Warning Signs of Heart Attack, Stroke & Cardiac Arrest. American Heart Association. Accessed on February 14, 2014. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/911-Warnings-Signs-of-a-Heart-Attack_UCM_305346_SubHomePage.jsp
  5. Heart Attack, Stroke and Cardiac Arrest Warning Signs. American Heart Association. Accessed February 14, 2014. https://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/General/Heart-Attack-Stroke-and-Cardiac-Arrest-Signs_UCM_303977_SubHomePage.jsp
  6. My Life Check. American Heart Association and American Stroke Association. Accessed February 14, 2014. http://mylifecheck.heart.org/Default.aspx?NavID=1&CultureCode=en-US
Caryn Huneke

Caryn Huneke is completing her dietetic internship and MS degree in Nutrition Education at Teachers College, Columbia University to become a Registered Dietitian.

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