Feature Article

Understanding Heart Disease

Heart disease is a serious problem and one of the leading causes of death in the United States. As a support provider, you can help to protect those in your care from heart disease by learning about:

  • What heart disease is
  • The factors that may cause heart disease
  • The signs of heart disease and what to do if you see someone experiencing them
  • The common treatments for heart disease
  • How to prevent heart disease by helping yourself and others to make lifestyle changes
Heart Disease

The heart is a very important part of our bodies; its job is to pump blood through blood vessels to all of the other parts of our bodies. Blood vessels are like pipes; as our hearts beat, blood flows through these pipes to keep our bodies working. All of the parts of our bodies need blood to work properly because blood carries oxygen and other nutrients that we need to live.

The heart is also a part of our bodies that needs oxygen and nutrients to work properly. The special pipes that bring blood, oxygen, and nutrients to our hearts are called arteries. Just like pipes, the arteries that lead to our hearts can get clogged. The arteries get clogged by fat and other substances that are in our bodies. The fat and other substances build up on the walls of our arteries and make them narrow so that not enough blood can get through. When our hearts do not receive enough blood they also do not receive enough oxygen and nutrients; without oxygen and nutrients our hearts have a harder time working.

There is a name for what happens when arteries become partially clogged; this is called coronary heart disease. Sometimes an artery can become completely blocked so that no blood at all can reach the heart through this artery; when this happens to someone, he, or she, has what is called a heart attack.

Factors that Cause Heart Disease

Some of the people that you care for have risk factors that make them more likely to develop coronary heart disease. Individuals with developmental disabilities are more likely to develop coronary heart disease if they are over 50 years old, if they have family members who have coronary heart disease, or if they are African-American, Native American, or Latino. There is nothing that you or they can do to change these things; they are uncontrollable factors.

Individuals with developmental disabilities are also more likely to develop coronary heart disease if they:
  • Smoke cigarettes
  • Have high cholesterol or high blood pressure
  • Do not exercise
  • Are overweight or obese
  • Have uncontrolled diabetes
  • Have uncontrolled stress and anger
People with certain types of disabilities are more likely to have some of these risk factors than people who do not have disabilities. For example, some people with cerebral palsy find it difficult to walk, and they may not get very much exercise as a result.

Signs and Symptoms of Heart Disease

You may be able to tell if the individuals you support have coronary heart disease by learning about the signs and symptoms of the disease. The most common symptom of coronary heart disease is called "angina." Angina is what doctors call symptoms like feeling discomfort, heaviness, pressure, aching, burning, and pain in the chest. Some people may also feel angina in their arms, neck, back, or jaw. Angina may feel like having indigestion or heartburn.

Individuals you support that have heart disease may complain about other symptoms as well. You should pay close attention to people who complain of:
  • Having a hard time breathing
  • Feeling like their heart is beating oddly or skipping beats
  • Having a fast heartbeat
  • Feeling weak or dizzy
  • Sweating a lot
If a person is having these symptoms for the first time you should make sure they see their doctor immediately. The doctor will be able to tell the person whether or not they have coronary heart disease and may also be able to give them medicines to help them feel better. Whenever you see anyone with these symptoms you should advise them to stop what they are doing and rest.

The symptoms of a heart attack are often the same as the symptoms of coronary heart disease. A doctor can provide the individuals you support with more information about how to tell if they are having a heart attack. If you think that somebody in your care is having a heart attack you should call 9-1-1 for emergency help. You should call 9-1-1 quickly to reduce damage to the person's heart - do not wait at all.

Treatments for Heart Disease

There is no pill that will completely cure people who have coronary heart disease. By understanding the disease, you can support an individual to control their heart disease and prevent heart attacks.

The main thing that you can do to support someone to control their coronary heart disease is to encourage them to:

  • Quit smoking
  • Eat foods that are low in fat, low in salt, and low in cholesterol
  • Follow their doctor's advice about exercising
If you support people who have diabetes, you can encourage them to ask a nutritionist for a proper diet and eat only the foods on the diet, and in the right amounts. You can also encourage people with diabetes who take insulin to be careful to take the right amount at the right time of day. By helping a person change their lifestyle you can lower their risk of developing coronary heart disease.

If changes like these are not enough to control coronary heart disease, the doctor may prescribe medication to help the person's heart work better. The type of medication that the person receives will depend on their specific heart problems. For some people with coronary heart disease, surgery may help to control the disease as well. If you support someone with coronary heart disease, it is very important to remind them to check-in with their doctor regularly so that he or she can keep track of the their heart.

If an individual has a heart attack, their doctor will give them advice about how to avoid having another one. The best way for someone to avoid future heart attacks is to see their doctor for regular heart checkups, take their medications, and change their lifestyle by eating healthy foods, exercising, and not smoking.

Preventing Heart Disease

You can help to prevent heart disease among the people you support by educating them about the disease and encouraging them to make changes in their lives. To help consumers live a heart-healthy life, you should encourage them to:
  • Decide not to smoke (and if they do smoke, find out how to quit)
  • Exercise and eat healthy foods to maintain a healthy weight
  • Lower their cholesterol levels by eating healthy foods (such as fruits and vegetables, fat-free and low-fat milk products, and fish) and limiting unhealthy foods (such as whole milk, ice cream, butter, cheese, fried foods, and sweets)
  • Lower their blood pressure by eating less salt
  • Manage their diabetes by talking with a doctor
  • Control their stress and anger by relaxing or talking to a counselor
Encourage and support individuals who have questions about heart disease to talk to their doctor. Doctors can give you and the individual more information about actions they can take to keep their hearts healthy and strong.

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