What does it mean to be at risk for impaired cardiovascular function? The question is about your vulnerability to factors that can damage vital organs in your circulatory system. You can conduct an honest personal assessment to understand your level of risk and make important decisions about how to protect your heart health.
Lifestyle Is the #1 Risk Factor for Impaired Cardiovascular Function
While heart-related risk factors may be genetic or hereditary, the problem is most often related to lifestyle.
- Diet. Poor diet leads to hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, and other conditions that put the heart at risk. The most important thing you can do for your heart is to focus on good nutrition. Over 75% of foods contain added sugar, and most processed foods are also rich in fats, oils, cholesterol, and added sodium.
- Smoking. Tobacco smoke is filled with chemicals that damage blood cells and compromise normal heart function. Over time, these chemicals can even weaken your blood vessels, contributing to a condition known as atherosclerosis. Plaque builds up in the arteries, narrowing them and inhibiting the ability of oxygen-rich blood to flow to vital organs—the result is decreased cardiac tissue perfusion, a potentially life-threatening condition.
- Alcohol consumption. Research shows that excessive alcohol consumption is associated with a heightened risk of cardiomyopathy (more on that below) and hypertension (high blood pressure). Government guidelines recommend a limit of two alcoholic drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
- Chronic stress. While researchers haven’t found a definitive cause-and-effect link between stress and heart disease, we know that stress can exacerbate poor lifestyle factors like excessive alcohol consumption and binge-eating, both of which are bad for the heart.
As the saying goes, good health starts in the kitchen. So focus on living a heart-healthy lifestyle to reduce your risk.
High Blood Pressure Is a Risk Factor for Impaired Cardiovascular Function
Although high blood pressure is often a consequence of lifestyle factors, some people are more prone to hypertension than others. This condition can present itself in otherwise healthy individuals or emerge as a result of an underlying condition.
There are two types of high blood pressure: primary (essential) hypertension and secondary hypertension. Primary hypertension is the most common type and tends to develop over a period of years. Secondary blood pressure tends to be caused by an underlying condition like sleep apnea, thyroid problems, or kidney problems. Certain medications, like birth control pills, over-the-counter pain relievers, and cold remedies can also contribute to secondary hypertension.
Your blood pressure should typically fall below 120/80. If your blood pressure consistently measures higher than these numbers, talk to your doctor. Hypertension can thicken the blood vessel walls over time, compromising your normal cardiovascular function and potentially leading to heart attack or stroke.
Heart Arrhythmias Are a Risk Factor for Impaired Cardiovascular Function
A heart arrhythmia is an abnormal heart rhythm. It happens due to malfunctioning electrical impulses. Your heart may beat too fast or too slow, or it may beat erratically or unevenly. In some cases, a heart arrhythmia can be a serious warning sign. A malfunctioning heart rhythm can ultimately trigger cardiac arrest, whereby the heart stops completely. Most cardiac arrests are fatal without immediate intervention.
An abnormally fast heartbeat (a resting heart rate above 100 beats per minute) is called a tachycardia. An abnormally slow heartbeat (a resting heart rate below 60 beats per minute) is known as a bradycardia. Arrhythmias are also characterized based on where they originate. Those originating in the atria are classified as atrial fibrillation; those originating in the ventricles are classified as ventricular fibrillation.
Doctors don’t fully know the cause of heart arrhythmias, but certain conditions tend to trigger them, such as:
- A heart attack
- Scar tissue from a prior heart attack
- High blood pressure
- Sleep apnea
- Blocked arteries in the heart
- Overactive or underactive thyroid
Recently, doctors have also observed a correlation between heart arrhythmias and COVID-19. If you have recovered from the coronavirus and you notice any unusual heart activity, speak to your doctor immediately.
Cardiomyopathy Is a Risk Factor for Impaired Cardiovascular Function
Cardiomyopathy is a condition that makes it difficult for your heart to pump blood to the rest of your body. Without treatment, it can lead to heart failure. Treatments commonly include medications, surgically implanted devices, and, in some cases, a heart transplant. It depends on the type and severity of the condition.
Common causes of cardiomyopathy include:
- Damage from a previous heart attack
- Heart valve problems
- Pregnancy complications
- Long-term high blood pressure
- Consistently rapid heart rate
- Years of alcohol abuse
- Thyroid diseases
- Use of cocaine or amphetamines
- Connective tissue disorders
- COVID-19 infection
Symptoms can take years to develop. As the condition advances, sufferers may notice symptoms like shortness of breath, swelling of the legs and feet, extreme fatigue, fluttering heartbeats, chest pressure, or dizziness. If you have symptoms of cardiomyopathy, see a doctor at once.
Congenital Heart Disease Is a Risk Factor for Impaired Cardiovascular Function
A congenital heart defect is a birth defect characterized by an abnormal heart structure. It’s the most common type of birth defect, but it manifests differently in different people. It may be an abnormality of the heart walls, valves, or nearby arteries. In some cases, the defect can disrupt blood flow through the heart, causing it to slow down or move in the wrong direction. In extreme cases, blood flow may be inhibited completely.
When detected early, these defects can often be treated. However, they often aren’t diagnosed right away. Symptoms include poor blood circulation; fatigue; rapid breathing; or bluish skin, lips, or fingernails.
Diabetes Is a Risk Factor for Impaired Cardiovascular Function
Although type 2 diabetes is predominantly caused by lifestyle factors (which we’ve already addressed), not all diabetes sufferers fall into the lifestyle category. Specifically, type 1 diabetes most commonly manifests early in life as a result of genetics and other factors outside the person’s control.
Type 1 diabetics must be diligent about protecting their cardiovascular health, as the condition can contribute to heart and blood vessel disease. Common complications include coronary artery disease, narrowing of the arteries, hypertension, heart attack, and stroke. Managing your diabetes is key, as is maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle.
Pericarditis Is a Risk Factor for Impaired Cardiovascular Function
Pericarditis is a condition affecting the pericardium, the thin membrane surrounding your heart. The condition is commonly caused by an infection that leads to swelling and irritation. Most cases are mild and temporary, but chronic pericarditis may require medication or surgery. If left untreated, chronic pericarditis can contribute to more serious heart problems.
The most common symptom is chest pain and irritation. Any time you have unexplained chest pain (whether due to pericarditis or any other condition), you should speak to a doctor right away.
A Risk for Impaired Cardiovascular Function Care Plan
If you have a heightened risk for impaired cardiovascular function, there are certain steps you can take to preserve your heart health:
- Visit your cardiologist regularly. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that you can manage the condition on your own. Heed their advice, and take any prescribed medications.
- Maintain a nutritious, heart-healthy diet that’s rich in whole grains, lean protein, fruits, and vegetables. Keep processed, salty, and fatty foods to a minimum.
- Maintain a healthy weight. You can use this BMI calculator to figure out your ideal weight range.
- Limit your alcohol consumption, and avoid smoking.
- Take steps to manage your stress from day to day.
- Keep your blood pressure under control. For some people, this may require medications like beta-blockers. For others, lifestyle factors alone may be enough.
- Manage any pre-existing conditions you have, such as diabetes or overactive thyroid. These conditions can stress the heart as well.
- Invest in an automated external defibrillator (AED) if you have a heightened risk for cardiac arrest. If you need something that’s affordable and easy to use, the HeartSine PAD 350P is a great place to start.
Finally, pay attention to your body. If you notice any irregularities or unexplained aches originating from your heart, speak to your doctor right away. Your heart is the most important muscle you have; always treat it well.