September 29 – Hearty Recommendation

Today’s factismal: Your heart will beat nearly three billion times during your life.

Welcome to World Heart Day! Today, we celebrate all things cardiac-related, from the fact that we all got ’em to the fact that we all need ’em. But the one thing that we celebrate most today is the fact that we are smart enough to protect these organs by taking care of them with proper diet, exercise, and plenty of rest. What? You don’t do any of those things? Well, you should!

Why? Because heart disease is the number one killer in the world. Every year, heart disease and congestive heart failure take more than 17.5 million people! Let’s put it this way – if you know four women, then one of them will die from heart disease. All told, about 28% of the women and 9% of the men in the USA have heart disease. Heart disease kills more Americans than accidents, diabetes, kidney failure, influenza, suicide, and murder combined.

Heart disease rates across the USA (Image courtesy CDC)

Death rates from heart disease across the USA
(Image courtesy CDC)

Heart disease takes many forms. There’s atrial fibrillation, where the top part of the heart beats in 9/7 time while the bottom part does a waltz. There’s coronary artery disease, where the pipes that lead to your heart get clogged up with fatty plaque. There’s heart failure, where the heart moves only a little blood even when your body wants a lot. And then there’s a heart attack, where your heart just throws in the towel and decides to take a rest on the sidelines for a bit.

Even the Assitant Surgeon general needs to have her blood pressure monitored (Image courtesy CDC)

Even the Assistant Surgeon General needs to have her blood pressure monitored
(Image courtesy CDC)

So how do they test for heart disease? There are lots of ways but the first test is one that you’ve probably seen at the local drug store – they take your blood pressure. Known technically as a sphygmomanometer or blood pressure cuff (because sphygmomanometer is a mouthful)they tell the doctor just how much effort your heart has to expend moving blood around your body. There is a number that tells the doctor the maximum pressure that it takes to move blood (the systolic pressure) and another that tells the doctor the minimum pressure in your blood (the diastolic pressure). Typically, the two numbers are about 30 points different, e.g., a reading of 120/90. If the numbers differ by more than 40 points for multiple readings, that could indicate a serious heart condition. And if the systolic number is too high or too low, then that could also mean that you need to see a doctor.

Description Systolic (High) Number Diastolic (Low) Number What to do?
Hypotension <90 <60 See a doctor
Normal 90–119 60–79 Smile!
Prehypertension 120–139 80–89 See a doctor
Hypertension >140 >90 Really go see a doctor

Blood pressure that is too low is known as hypotension and can cause dizziness and fainting; it is caused by things such as shock, blood loss, disease, and simply standing up too quickly. (That last one usually goes away pretty quickly but it has a cool name – orthostatic hypotension.) Hypotension is fairly rare and usually caused by a reaction to medications.

Blood pressure that is too high is known as hypertension; doctors call it “the silent killer” because it can cause strokes, heart failure, heart attacks, kidney failure, and blindness without the victim ever knowing that he has it. And there are a lot of people with the disease. The CDC estimates that one out of every three Americans has hypertension – that’s 70,000,000 people! As you might guess, something this common and this deadly has a lot of people researching it.

Heart disease rates across the USA (Image courtesy CDC)

Heart disease rates across the USA
(Image courtesy CDC)

And that research is beginning to bear fruit. In a recent study of 9,300 people suffering from hypertension, they discovered that dropping the diastolic pressure below 140 is good but dropping it below 120 is great! When the participants managed to bring their blood pressure back down into the “normal” range, their risk for heart attacks, stroke, and heart failure dropped by a third. Even better, their risk of dying dropped by a quarter! Because the results were so startling and so clear, the study ended two years early so that everyone could be put on a regime to lower their blood pressure.

If you’d like to celebrate World Heart Day by doing a little heart research of your own and maybe work in some citizen science on the side, why not head over to the CDC’s Million Heart website. there you will find tools to help you manage your blood pressure and learn what it will take to prevent a million heart attacks by 2017. To learn more, beat a path to:

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