Every moment of the day, your heart is pumping blood throughout your body. In silent moments, you can hear the thump-thump-thump of its demanding work. Do you take your heart for granted? Most of us will have heart trouble at some point in our lives. Heart disease is the number one killer of women and men in the United States. But you can take steps now to lower your risk.
“About 1 out of 3 people in America will die of heart disease,” says NIH heart disease expert Dr. David C. Goff, Jr. “And about 6 out of every 10 of us will have a major heart disease event before we die.”
Heart disease develops when the blood vessels supplying the heart become clogged with fatty deposits, or plaque. After the blood vessels narrow, blood flow to the heart is reduced. That means oxygen and nutrients can’t get to the heart as easily.
Eventually, an area of plaque can break open. This may cause a blood clot to form on the plaque’s surface. A blood clot can block blood flowing to the heart. That can cause a heart attack.
A heart attack happens when a vessel supplying the heart is blocked and the heart can’t get enough oxygen, which leads to death of heart muscle.
The three major risk factors for heart disease have been known since the 1960s: smoking, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol levels. These were identified in NIH’s Framingham Heart Study, a long-term study of people in Framingham, Massachusetts.
“If we could eliminate cigarette smoking, elevated blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol levels, we could eradicate about 9 out of 10 heart attacks in our country,” says Dr. Daniel Levy, a heart specialist at NIH who oversees the Framingham Heart Study currently.
The study has also uncovered other risk factors, including diabetes, obesity, and physical inactivity. Levy’s research team is now hunting for genes that may be risk factors for heart disease. By understanding the factors that play a role in heart disease, scientists hope to find new ways to prevent and treat it.