That vital organ in your chest most associated with roses and sweet nothings isn't just what greeting card companies use as their icon. More importantly, it carries out many major functions — think transporting life-essential blood throughout the body, carrying carbon dioxide to be breathed out by the lungs and controlling blood pressure, as National Geographic explains.
Because the heart is so important, it's essential to understand what you're dealing with in your role as a caregiver to someone with heart disease. To get you started, we've compiled a quick guide to the most common heart diseases and how you can help reduce the risk.
1. Coronary artery disease
Coronary artery disease occurs when coronary arteries become impaired, typically due to plaque build up, and can't effectively bring blood, oxygen and nutrients to the heart, according to the Mayo Clinic. As the disease develops, symptoms like chest pains and shortness of breath can occur. If ignored, coronary artery disease can fully block the arteries, potentially leading to a heart attack.
While the best defense against coronary artery disease is prevention, you can help your loved one manage the disease through lifestyle shifts. The Mayo Clinic suggests helping them kick habits such as smoking or eating foods high in cholesterol (so hold the butter, please).
Additionally, you should help your loved one get active regularly — which has the added bonus of increasing happiness, research shows.
2. Congestive heart failure
Congestive heart failure doesn't mean your heart has completely stopped working, according to the American Heart Association. The cause for alarm is that either the heart has become weak or an issue has stopped blood from properly circulating.
So where does the "congestion" part come in? Well, with a weakened heart and poor blood circulation, less blood goes to the kidneys to filter out fluid. The extra fluid that gets left behind can build up around the eyes and in the liver, lungs and legs, causing congestion.
Someone living with heart disease may also find themselves dealing with arrhythmia. The AHA describes this condition as erratic or irregular electrical impulses, meaning the heart beats too quickly, too slowly, or out of sequence. An arrhythmia means the heart can't pump blood as it should, which can lead to issues with organ function, such as in the lungs and brain.
If you notice a fluttering sensation in your heart or feel shortness of breath, chest pains or dizziness, it's best to see a doctor right away.
They may prescribe medication, put your loved one on a heart-healthy diet and suggest abstaining from alcohol, caffeine and tobacco. They may also recommend using a blood pressure monitor to track changes in heart rate throughout the day to help you make lifestyle adjustments when necessary.
4. Peripheral artery disease
Peripheral artery disease resembles coronary artery disease, notes the AHA, as they both lead to a narrowing of the arteries, particularly those bringing blood to the stomach, arms, heart and most commonly the legs. Lower extremity pains and cramps due to peripheral artery disease are often thought to be something else. If a total loss of circulation is left untreated, this condition can lead to gangrene.
For this reason, it's essential to consult a doctor when symptoms occur. If the doctor determines the cause is peripheral artery disease, they will recommend the appropriate treatments, perhaps including a stent to open the artery.
Take steps to prevent peripheral artery disease by having your loved one nix cigarettes, eat a heart-healthy diet and incorporate fitness (like walking) into a regular schedule. A simple pedometer can help them create a daily step goal and stick with it.
A stroke occurs when blood flow and oxygen don't reach an area of the brain, explains the National Stroke Association. Often, people who are having a stroke notice symptoms such as:
- An unanticipated numbness in the face, leg or arm, often on one side of the body, causing a droop in smile.
- Difficulty thinking and speaking.
- Trouble seeing.
- Strong headache.
- Balance issues.
With stokes, it's imperative to call 911 immediately and take note of the exact time of the first symptom.
Stroke and heart disease are closely linked, but the National Stroke Association says up to 80 percent of strokes can be prevented with proper measures. While a number of factors can predispose you, there are steps you can take to decrease the chances of stroke. Take proactive measures by having your loved one tell their doctor about any family history of stroke. They should also reduce their blood pressure through physical activity and a heart-healthy diet and take medications or blood thinners when prescribed by a physician.
People who have heart disease can help decrease their risk of associated conditions through lifestyle adjustments, such as keeping active, eating more healthily and avoiding bad habits like smoking. Talk to your loved one's doctor about the different technologies to help with the recovery and maintenance of these conditions. With proper care, you can ensure your loved one has the best quality of life.