American Heart Month: Heart Health 101

There are many different factors that can affect the health and function of the cardiovascular system, the central engine of the body. About one third of all US adults develop heart disease during their lifetime and while most cases of heart disease are due to a combination of lifestyle choices, some are due to genetics. February is American Heart Month — a great time to learn about your risk for inherited conditions and take action to keep yourself healthy.

Taking action starts with knowing the basics. By making complex concepts more easily understandable, we’ll help answer questions about heart health you may be too afraid to ask.

How does the cardiovascular system work?

At the core of the cardiovascular system is the heart, a continuous pump that allows the rest of the body to receive oxygen and other essential nutrients while discarding carbon dioxide and other harmful waste. An intricate network of blood vessels functions as the “pipes” of the cardiovascular system, allowing blood to be transported to all the body’s tissues. All the cells in the body rely on the cardiovascular system to survive.

A healthy heart consists of four chambers that work together for a common goal: to keep pumping. The human heart beats about 1 billion times in an average human’s lifetime.¹ A heartbeat is actually a rhythmic muscle contraction and release. Electrical impulses travel through the heart to trigger each beat. A normal resting heart rate is between 50 and 100 beats per minute,² but this can vary depending on factors like exercise, certain emotional states, cardiovascular disease and medications.

The chambers of the heart, called atria and ventricles, are responsible for sending blood to and from the rest of the body as the heart beats. It is essential that blood flows, without fail, to every tissue and organ in your body and the heart powers this process. Blood efficiently moves oxygen, carbon dioxide, nutrients, hormones, and more between different parts of your body.³ It is made up of a liquid called plasma, red blood cells (which carry oxygen and carbon dioxide to other cells in your body) and white blood cells (which are part of the immune system). Arteries, veins, and capillaries are the blood vessels that transport blood throughout your body. This vast system is over 60,000 miles long and, if stretched from end to end, is long enough to go around the world twice.⁴

How do I keep my cardiovascular system healthy?

Cardiovascular health is impacted by a variety of factors, some of which can put you at risk for heart disease,⁵ including:

– Existing conditions, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes

– Behaviors, like tobacco and alcohol use and a sedentary lifestyle

– Diet choices, like choosing foods with high cholesterol, trans fat, saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium

– Family history of heart disease

– A genetic mutation associated with a risk of an inherited heart condition

Most of these factors are in your control and you can take strong steps to maintaining a healthy heart,⁶ including:

– Taking steps towards quitting smoking or reducing your alcohol consumption

– Working with your healthcare provider to manage high blood pressure and cholesterol with medication and lifestyle choices

– Making small changes to your diet to avoid food with high amounts of sugar, sodium, trans fats, and saturated fats and replacing them with fruits and vegetables

– Staying physically active: the CDC recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of exercise per week

How do genetics impact heart health?

1 in 200 people have a heart condition with a genetic basis and most people with inherited heart conditions often do not experience symptoms or know they are at risk until they experience a cardiac event. Finding out early can help you and your healthcare provider create a personalized plan to prevent heart disease or sudden cardiac arrest. If left undetected and untreated, inherited heart conditions can lead to problems like coronary heart disease, heart attacks, sudden cardiac arrest, or heart failure.

Genetic testing can help you learn your risk for inherited heart conditions. As a part of Color’s clinical grade services, we test 30 genes for mutations related to four types of inherited heart conditions: arrhythmias, familial hypercholesterolemia, cardiomyopathies, and arteriopathies. Next week, we’ll share more about what to do with genetic testing results that show a positive result for a mutation related to cardiovascular risk.

For more information about genetic testing, you can find a genetic counselor in your ZIP code by searching at www.findageneticcounselor.com or you can speak to one of Color’s board-certified genetic counselors at 844–352–6567 or geneticcounselors@color.com.


References

1. Levine, H. J. (1997, October). Rest heart rate and life expectancy. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9316546

2. Heart & Blood Vessels: How the Heart Beats. (2019, May 1). Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17064-heart-beat

3. Blood. (2019, October 22). Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/blood.html

4. Heart & Blood Vessels: Blood Flow. (2019, April 30). Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17059-how-does-blood-flow-through-your-body

5. Know Your Risk for Heart Disease. (2019, December 9). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/risk_factors.htm

6. Heart Disease: It Can Happen at Any Age. (2018, February 12). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/features/heartmonth/index.html