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Heart Disease
What is heart disease?
National Heart Lung and Blood InstituteThe term "heart disease" refers to several types of heart conditions. The most common type of heart disease in the United States is coronary artery disease, which occurs when a substance called plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. This excess plaque in the arteries can cause a heart attack, angina, heart failure and arrhythmias. Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in McLean County and the United States for both men and women.

Certain medical conditions and lifestyle factors put people at higher risk for developing heart disease, which include:

Medical Conditions
  • High Cholesterol. When there is too much cholesterol in the body, it is deposited in the arteries-including those of the heart. This can lead to narrowing of the arteries, heart disease and other serious complications.
  • High Blood Pressure. There are often no symptoms to signal high blood pressure. Lowering blood pressure by changes in lifestyle or by medication can lower the risk of heart disease and heart attack.
  • Diabetes. Diabetes causes sugars to build up in the blood. About three-quarters of people with diabetes die of some form of heart or blood vessel disease.

  • Tobacco Use. Cigarette smoking promotes atherosclerosis and increases the levels of blood clotting factors. Also, nicotine raises blood pressure and carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen that blood can carry. Exposure to other people's smoke can increase the risk of heart disease even for nonsmokers. Assistance is available for those wishing to quit smoking.  
  • Diet. Several aspects of people's diets are linked to heart disease and related conditions. These include diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol, which raise blood cholesterol levels and promote atherosclerosis. High salt or sodium in the diet causes raised blood pressure levels.
  • Physical Inactivity. Physical inactivity is related to the development of heart disease. It can also impact other risk factors, including obesity, high blood pressure, low levels of "good" cholesterol, and diabetes. Regular physical activity can improve risk factor levels.
  • Obesity. Excess body fat is liked to higher "bad" cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well as lower "good" cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
  • Alcohol. Excessive alcohol use leads to an increase in blood pressure and increases the risk for heart disease. It also increases the blood levels of triglycerides which contributes to atherosclerosis.
  • Heredity. Heart disease can run in the family. Genetic factors play some role in high blood pressure, heart disease and other vascular conditions. Often, people with a family history of heart disease also share common environmental risk factors that increase their risk. The risk for heart disease increases even more when heredity is combined with unhealthy lifestyle choices.
Key Definitions

is a disorder of the heart rate (pulse), such as beating too fast, too slow, or irregularly.

is a fat-like substance in the body produced by the liver or consumed in certain foods. It is needed by the body, but the amount the liver produces is enough for the body's needs. High levels in blood, consumed in food, can lead to heart disease and stroke.

Diabetes is a disease that affects the body's use of insulin. Insulin tells the body to remove sugar from the blood. People with diabetes either don't make enough insulin, can't use their own insulin as well as they should, or both.

High blood pressure is a condition where the pressure of the blood in the arteries is too high.

Obesity is excess body fat.

Plaque is made up of cholesterol deposits, which can accumulate
in your arteries.
 Heart Disease Prevention
McLean County Health Department

1. Manage your Weight— Pay attention to your current diet and make small changes to improve what you eat. Make an effort to cut back on sugars, trans fats, saturated fats, and sodium by looking at your food labels. Replace bad foods with good foods. To lower cholesterol, add blueberries, walnuts, and tomatoes to your diet. When possible, substitute a natural unsaturated vegetable oil (such as canola, peanut, or olive oil) in recipes calling for stick margarine or butter. Substitute potato chips or cookies with flavored rice cakes, string cheese, yogurt, graham crackers with peanut butter, or fresh fruit like strawberries, bananas and apricots.

2. Get Moving— Exercising for as little as 30 minutes a day can reduce your risk of heart disease.  Start with a small goal, like taking the stairs three times a day, and commit to it regularly. Once you work your way up to a workout activity you enjoy, try exercising at the same time of day so it becomes a part of your daily routine. Keep reasonable expectations for yourself so you don’t burn out. And most importantly, have fun! Put your favorite music on and kick it into gear for at least 30 minutes a day.

3. Quit Smoking— It’s not as easy as some people think, but it is very important. Smoking is the No. 1 preventable cause of premature death in the United States. Smokers have a higher risk of developing chronic disorders, such as atherosclerosis (the buildup of fatty substances in the arteries) which can lead to coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Thankfully, there are free resources available to help you quit. The Illinois Tobacco Quitline puts you in touch with a medical professional to help you quit smoking. Visit or call 1-866-784-8937.

4. Manage your Stress— Stress affects people in different ways both physically and spiritually. Some people may turn to food or alcohol as comfort, but there are better alternatives. Try talking to your friends or family, because bottling up feelings only adds to your anxiety. Focus on positive self talk when thinking about your stress triggers. When experiencing a stress trigger, take three to five deep breaths. Try to find time, even if it’s only 5 minutes a day, to sit in a comfortable position and just relax. 

Heart Attack Warning Signs

  • Chest pains: The most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain, but even that can sometimes be unrecognizeable. It may just feel like a squeezing that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back. It may feel like an elephant sitting on your chest. Sometimes it doesn't particularly hurt, but feels like an uncomfortable sensation. If chest pain lasts more than five minutes, go to the emergency room.
  • Shortness of breath: You may feel you can't catch your breath, even when resting. This breathlessness often occurs before the chest pain. 
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness: You may feel as if you will pass out. 
  • Cold sweat: Sweating when you are cold or have a chills

Warning signs more common in women
  • Pain in the arm (especially left arm), back, neck, abdomen or shoulder blades: When the nerves of the heart are irritated because the heart isn't getting enough blood, discomfort or pain can radiate out to many places in the body. The pain often is described as an uncomfortable pressure, tightness or ache.
  • Jaw pain: Jaw and throat pain are quite common. The feeling can start in the chest and move to the throat — as if someone is choking you — and then to the jaw. But again, it's not always obvious.
  • Nausea and vomiting: Women are more likely than men to have this symptom, and they may think they have a stomach virus rather than a heart attack.
  • Overwhelming and unusual fatigue: Fatigue is generally a symptom of today's busy lifestyle, so it's often overlooked as a heart attack sign, but it's extremely common, so beware if you're unusually exhausted.