Heart attacks happen swiftly, usually without warning. The cause of most of them is atherosclerosis, the build-up of fats like LDLs (the "bad" cholesterol), on and inside artery walls. As these fatty deposits accumulate, substances like fibrous tissue, blood cells, and calcium stick to them. This gluey mixture hardens into plaques that narrow the blood vessels. An area of plaque or a blood clot can break loose and plug up an already narrowed artery. Most often this happens in the coronary arteries, which feed oxygen-rich blood to the heart.
What's remarkable about atherosclerosis is that it is almost entirely preventable. Smoking and heavy drinking are two causes of the problem. Heredity is another. But at the root of heart disease is poor nutrition that results in obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
The most common form of atherosclerosis is coronary artery disease (CAD). In one year, CAD is expected to trigger 950,000 heart attacks in the United States. Two of every five of its victims will die. CAD is an equal-opportunity killer. Men tend to develop heart disease earlier than women, but heart disease is the number-one killer of women older than 55.
Warning signs for your heart: Chest pain, breathlessness, and palpitations (a fluttering sensation in the chest) are possible signs of heart problems. If you experience them, you should visit your doctor.
The focus on adults obscures one of the saddest facts about heart disease: In most cases, it begins in childhood. Autopsies performed on children and young adults provide the most revealing evidence—fatty streaks on the blood vessel walls. According to some studies, nearly 15 percent of all children in the United States have elevated levels of cholesterol. Many suffer from familial hypercholesterolemia, an inherited condition that causes the liver to overproduce cholesterol. But most have high cholesterol simply because they consume too much saturated fat either at home or when dining out.
Findings like these are a reminder that it's never too early to start down the path to a healthy heart, nor is it ever too late.
University of California heart expert Dean Ornish, M.D., has shown that people with advanced heart disease can improve the health of their arteries through following a combination of exercise, stress-reduction techniques, and a rigorous heart-smart diet.