“I can’t have [insert disease here] – I feel fine!”
How often have you heard someone say something like this? We’re used to thinking of being sick as something we feel, with symptoms that we can point to. It’s a little unnerving to realize that there are a lot of diseases out there that don’t cause any symptoms at all until they suddenly cause something dramatic – like a heart attack or a stroke.
Cardiovascular disease (diseases of the heart and blood vessels) is one of these. It’s a sneaky, slow-growing condition that can lead to life-threatening events. Changes can take place within your body that put you at risk for heart attack, stroke or other problems, and you won’t even know it. These changes can take years or decades to develop and they don’t cause any symptoms along the way.
For example, about 1 in 4 people with a heart attack have no warning signs or symptoms – yet cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in Canada. Between 40 and 60% of all heart attacks and sudden deaths due to heart disease occur with no warning symptoms at all. This is why cardiovascular disease has been called a “silent killer”.
Cardiovascular disease defined
So, what exactly is cardiovascular disease? It’s actually a collection of diseases that develop because of abnormal changes that occur in the heart or blood vessels (arteries and veins). Many of these changes are due to hardening of the blood vessels caused by a build-up of fatty material (called “plaque”) inside the blood vessel walls. This condition is called atherosclerosis.
When plaque builds up in the walls of your blood vessels, it can affect the flow of blood to the heart, the brain and other organs. If it completely blocks those vessels, it will cause symptoms – such as a heart attack – but until that point, plaque just quietly accumulates.
Heart disease doesn’t care about age
It doesn’t wait until we get old, either. Atherosclerosis can start developing in childhood, especially in children who are obese, don’t exercise and have unhealthy eating habits. Children who have early signs of atherosclerosis are expected to have a shorter lifespan, but like adults, they won’t necessarily experience any symptoms along the way.
In adults, the speed at which atherosclerosis develops is related to our risk factors, such as:
- A family history of heart disease or stroke
- High blood pressure
- High LDL-cholesterol levels
- Lack of exercise
You can’t measure your plaque build-up in your doctor’s office, but you can largely predict it by looking at your risk factors.
Be proactive about heart disease
Is there any point to worrying about this invisible condition when it’s not causing you any symptoms? Yes indeed. If you get a blood test and learn that you have high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels or pre-diabetes, you can start treatment and make lifestyle choices that will slow down the atherosclerosis in your blood vessels.
Most types of cardiovascular disease can be prevented or delayed by consistently eating a healthy diet, exercising and keeping your weight under control. As with anything else, the earlier you start with healthy lifestyle choices, the better.
Please speak to your healthcare professional before starting any new exercise program.