Heart Health Basics


Risk Factors

Risk Factors You Can’t Change

•  You have had a heart attack or stroke.

•  Being male 45 years+ or female 55 years+

•  Heart disease in a father or brother before age 55; in a mother or sister before age 65

•  African Americans, Mexican Americans, and American Indians have a higher risk than Caucasians.

Risk Factors You Can Control

•  Cigarette smoking. Secondhand smoke.

•  Blood pressure ≥ 140/90 mm Hg or you take medicine to lower high blood pressure

•  High risk levels for LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, and/or triglycerides

•  Diabetes

•  Being overweight. Lack of exercise.

•  Other artery diseases (abdominal aortic aneurysm, carotid artery disease; peripheral artery disease)

•  Metabolic syndrome. This is having 3 or more of these problems:

– Waist size ≥ 40 inches for men; ≥ 35 inches for women

– Blood pressure ≥ 130 mm Hg systolic and/or ≥ 85 mm Hg diastotic or you take medicine to lower blood pressure

– A fasting blood sugar ≥ 100 mg/dL or you have diabetes

– Triglycerides ≥ 150 mg/dL

– HDL-cholesterol < 40 mg/dL for men; < 50 mg/dL for women

Heart Conditions


American Heart Association




National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)

Heart disease is a common term for coronary artery disease (CAD). It is the leading cause of death in the U.S. for both men and women. With heart disease, arteries that supply blood to the heart become clogged with deposits called plaque. Cholesterol is part of the plaque. Over time, the buildup of plaque restricts blood flow to the heart. This can cause the problems that follow.

Illustration of a healthy artery vs a clogging artery.

Heart Failure (HF)

With this, the heart itself doesn’t fail. It “fails” to supply enough blood and oxygen for the body’s needs. This develops over time. It becomes a chronic problem.

Symptoms of Heart Failure

•  Shortness of breath

•  Feeling very tired or weak

•  Swelling in the lower legs, ankles and feet. Shoes can feel too tight all of a sudden.

•  Rapid weight gain

•  Dry cough or one with pink, frothy mucus

•  Fast heartbeat


With this, the heart muscle does not get enough blood and oxygen needed for a given level of work. Symptoms include:

•  Pain, discomfort or a squeezing pressure in the chest

•  Aching in a tooth, an arm, a jaw, or in the neck

Symptoms may come when you get angry or excited. They are more likely to come when you exert yourself (climb a hill, run to catch a bus, etc.). They usually go away with rest and/or nitroglycerin. This is medicine a doctor prescribes.


{Note: Angina symptoms can also be signs of a heart attack. (See the next panel.) A heart attack damages the heart muscle. Angina does not.}

Heart Attack

With this, the heart doesn’t get enough blood for a period of time. Part or all of the heart muscle dies. A heart attack can occur with heavy activity. It can occur at rest or during sleep, too. Heart attack warning signs are given on this page.

Heart Attack Warning Signs

Image of a man having a heart attack.

For any heart attack warning sign, call 9-1-1 or your local EMS.

Common Heart Attack Warning Signs

•  Feeling of pain (may spread to the arm, neck, jaw, tooth, or back), tightness, burning, squeezing, fullness, or heaviness in the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back

•  Chest discomfort with fainting, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, nausea, or sweating. Unusal chest, abdominal, or stomach pain.

•  Dizziness, nausea, trouble breathing, or arm or jaw pain without chest pain

•  Fast or uneven heartbeat or pulse; sweating for no reason; or pale, gray, or clammy skin

Signs More Likely to Occur in Women

•  An uneasy feeling in the chest with any problem listed above or with: Unexplained or extreme anxiety; unusual fatigue or weakness; fluttering hearbeats; or severe indigestion that does not go away with an antacid

Heart Health Tips

•  Get regular medical checkups. Get your blood pressure checked at each office visit or at least   every 2 years. Get your blood cholesterol tested at least every 5 years (yearly if you have heart disease or diabetes).

•  Don’t smoke. If you smoke, quit.

•  Get to or stay at a healthy body weight.

•  Take medicines as prescribed.

•  Ask your doctor about taking a low dose of aspirin (e.g., 1 baby aspirin) daily.

•  If you have diabetes, follow your treatment plan. If you don’t have diabetes, learn how to prevent and detect it from www.diabetes.org.

•  Manage anger, anxiety, depression, and stress.

•  Nurture your heart with healthy emotions and a strong support system from family and friends.

Tips to Deal With Stress

Stress makes the heart work harder. Stress raises blood cholesterol. Also, people who respond to stress in a hostile, angry way tend to suffer more heart attacks.

•  Learn ways to relax, like deep breathing.

•  Balance work and play.

•  Control negative thinking.

•  Don’t let emotions get “bottled up.”

•  Laugh more.

•  Avoid needless quarrels.


Aim to do an aerobic activity at least 20 minutes a day. Do this 5 or more days a week. The goal during an aerobic workout is to reach your target heart rate. Even moderate levels of exercise will be good for the heart.


Body builders work out to make muscles in their bodies stronger. The heart is a muscle. Exercise makes it stronger, too. Exercise also does these things:

•  It helps more blood get to the heart and more oxygen get to the lungs.

•  It lowers the chance of blood clots in the arteries.

•  It helps lower blood pressure.

•  It lowers stress.

The best exercise for the heart is one that makes it beat faster and helps the lungs take in more oxygen. This is called aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercises include:

•  Walking fast

•  Step aerobics

•  Jumping rope

•  Cross country skiing

•  Jogging

Target Heart Rate

This is 60-80% of your maximum heart rate. If you reach your target heart rate during the

aerobic part of your workout, your pace is good.*


To find out if you reach your target heart rate, check your pulse. Check it 10 minutes after you start your workout.

•  Place your fingers (not your thumbs) on one side of your neck below your jawbone. Or, check it on the inside of your wrist.

•  Count the number of tiny beats you feel in 10 seconds.

•  Find the line with your age (or the closest one to it) in the "Target Heart Rate Zone" box.

•  Is the number of beats you counted in 10 seconds in the range of numbers on the line next to your age? If so, you have reached your target heart rate.

This website is not meant to substitute for expert medical advice or treatment. Follow your doctor’s or health care provider’s advice if it differs from what is given in this guide.


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