Heart Disease: The SilverSneakers Guide

By Elizabeth Millard |

Heart disease is America’s No. 1 health risk. But there are steps you can take to protect yourself — starting with a better understanding of the condition.

Heart Disease: The SilverSneakers Guide

When it comes to health risks, heart disease isn’t just one of the biggest. It’s the top health risk in the U.S. for both men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Now for the good news: There’s plenty you can do to help prevent heart disease, even if it runs in your family.   

And if you already have heart disease, lifestyle choices can improve your quality of life. Here’s what you need to know to protect your health.   

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What is heart disease?  

Coronary heart disease (or coronary artery disease) is one of several diseases that fall under the umbrella term “cardiovascular disease,” according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. It is the most common cardiovascular disease and is often shortened to just “heart disease.”   

The life-threatening side effects of heart disease most commonly relate to a process called atherosclerosis. This is a condition that develops when fatty deposits, called plaque, build up in the walls of the arteries. Plaque is made up of cellular waste products, calcium, cholesterol, fatty substances, and fibrin — a clotting material in the blood. 

As plaque builds up, blood vessel walls thicken in a way that narrows the channels in your arteries. This slows your blood flow. Blood carries oxygen and other nutrients to the rest of your body. When a blockage like this occurs, it can lead to a heart attack. 

Heart disease is a major problem in the United States, as: 

  • More than 1 in 10 Americans have been diagnosed with heart disease  
  • It is the most common cause of a heart attack 
  • About 2.5 million Americans are expected to have a heart attack or undergo a procedure to open or bypass clogged arteries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  
  • About 630,000 people in the U.S. die of heart disease every year

Other conditions that fall under the umbrella of cardiovascular disease include:  

  • Arrhythmia  
  • Congenital heart disease  
  • Heart infection  
  • Heart valve disease
  • Stroke (when blood flow to the brain is blocked)  

What are the symptoms of heart disease?  

Heart disease is often described as being a “silent” condition — meaning you may not experience any noticeable symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, heart disease often goes undiagnosed until a person experiences signs of a heart attack.  

Heart attack symptoms can vary depending on what type of heart disease you have, according to Mayo Clinic. If you have the most common form, coronary heart disease, you may experience:  

  • Chest pressure, pain, tightness, and discomfort  
  • Shortness of breath  
  • Pain, numbness, weakness, or coldness in your arms and legs  
  • Aching or sharp pain in your neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen, or back  

If you experience any of the above, seek emergency medical treatment.  

Coronary artery disease symptoms tend to be different for men and women. Chest pain is the most frequent complaint for men. Women are more likely to experience discomfort, nausea, and extreme fatigue.   

Symptoms for other types of heart disease also can vary, and although chest tightness and discomfort occur with all of them, there are unique signs of trouble for each disease:  

  • Arrhythmias: Racing heartbeat, fluttering in the chest, lightheadedness, dizziness  
  • Heart defects: Swelling in the legs, abdomen, or around eyes, as well as pale gray skin and easily tiring during activity  
  • Diseased heart muscle or cardiomyopathy: Breathlessness even at rest, swelling in the legs, fatigue, irregular heartbeats, dizziness  
  • Heart infection: Fever, weakness, dry or persistent cough, skin rashes, shortness of breath  
  • Heart valve problems: Fatigue, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, swollen feet or ankles, fainting  

If you experience any of the above, call your health care provider and describe your symptoms. Follow their guidance on your next steps.  

Recommended reading: 4 Warning Signs of Heart Disease You Need to Know

What are heart disease risk factors?  

About half of all Americans have at least one of these three key risk factors for developing heart disease, according to the CDC. These risk factors include:  

  • High blood pressure. This happens when the pressure of the blood in your arteries is too high. It is often called a “silent killer” because it usually has no symptoms. You can lower blood pressure with lifestyle changes and medication.  
  • Unhealthy blood cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a waxy substance made by the liver and is also found in certain foods. If you eat more than the body can use, the extra cholesterol can build up in your artery walls, particularly a type called low-density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol. High cholesterol also has no symptoms.  
  • Smoking. Tobacco increases risk in several notable ways, including increased blood pressure from nicotine. Also, the carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood, damaging the heart and blood vessels.  

Family history and age can also be factors, as well as lifestyle habits beyond tobacco use. Those include:  

  • Eating a diet high in saturated fats and trans fats  
  • Not getting enough physical activity  
  • Drinking too much alcohol, which can raise blood pressure  

Heart disease affects both men and women and can happen at any age, but the risk increases as you get older. In fact, 77.5 percent of men and 75.4 percent of women ages 60 to 79 have some form of cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association. 

When should you see a doctor about heart disease?  

If you have any of the symptoms or risk factors noted above, make an appointment with your health provider. As mentioned earlier, if your symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, or fainting, seek emergency medical care immediately.  

Heart disease is easier to prevent than to treat. If you don’t have any symptoms or known risk factors, it’s still a good idea to talk to your doctor about steps to take to improve your heart health in general. Lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise can be powerful ways to keep your heart beating strong.  

Recommended reading: 8 Things Cardiologists Wish Every Older Adult Knew to Prevent Heart Attacks  

How is heart disease treated? 

Along with lifestyle changes, people with heart disease may be prescribed medication to help lower cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, and prevent heart attacks. Your doctor will choose the best medications for you based on different factors, including underlying medical conditions.  

These are some of the most common heart medications that your doctor might prescribe.  

Statins are commonly referred to as cholesterol medication. They block the production of cholesterol. They are mostly prescribed for people with heart disease or who are at risk of developing heart disease.

Anticoagulants, also known as blood thinners, treat or prevent blood clots. They are usually given to people with a heart rhythm issue called atrial fibrillation (or AFib), blood clots in the lungs, or blood clots in the legs.

Beta-blockers help block a chemical in your blood in order to slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. They are often prescribed for people with heart failure, abnormally fast heart rates, or high blood pressure. 

ACE inhibitors or angio receptor blockers (ARBs) are common medications that block a chemical in your blood in order to lower your blood pressure. They are often used in people with heart failure, high blood pressure, or diabetes. 

Calcium channel blockers help to relax blood vessels to let blood flow through them more freely. They are used to help control high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and chest pain (angina). 

Nitrates open or dilate blood vessels. They are typically prescribed to people who have chest pain and high blood pressure. 

What role does exercise play in the prevention and management of heart disease?  

Regular physical activity can boost your heart health, according to the American Heart Association. Exercise can help you maintain your weight, strengthen your cardiovascular system, and help your respiratory system as well. Your lungs play a major part in getting oxygen to your heart.  

Tips for exercising safely with heart disease include:  

  • Start slow and choose exercises you already enjoy, such as swimming, walking, or biking 
  • Always do five minutes of stretching or easy movement to warm up your heart and muscles  
  • Do a cool-down of five to 10 minutes after exercise, made up of the same activity you’ve been doing but at a slower pace to safely bring your heart rate back down  
  • Take rest periods often  
  • During hot weather, exercise indoors or in the morning or evening  
  • Do both aerobic activity as well as strength training during the week  
  • Consider talking with a physical therapist or a trainer who’s familiar with heart health and heart disease  

If you already have heart disease and you’re considering boosting your activity to improve your quality of life, be sure to talk with your doctor and proceed slowly before starting an exercise program.   

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans call for at least 150-minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic (aka cardio) exercise each week. Brisk walks, swimming, dancing, and SilverSneakers Cardio classes all count toward this goal.  

In addition, the guidelines state that adults need muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week. You can do bodyweight exercises like squats, planks, bird dogs, and incline pushups. You can also use dumbbells and resistance bands or tubing for a strength workout.

Press play to try an express version of a SilverSneakers Circuit class. This popular class combines both cardio and strength exercises into one workout.  

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What role does diet play in the prevention and management of heart disease?  

Healthy eating is key for a healthier heart. According to The American Heart Association, a diet that benefits your heart and overall health includes:  

  • A wide variety of fruits and vegetables  
  • Whole grains and products made mostly from whole grains, such as whole wheat, oats, brown rice, and quinoa 
  • Healthy sources of protein, including plant-based options like legumes and nuts, as well as fish and seafood, and low-fat or nonfat dairy  
  • Unprocessed lean meat and poultry, which means avoiding options like hot dogs, deli meat, and sausages  
  • Healthy fats like olive oil, walnut oil, avocados, flaxseed, and sunflower oil  
  • Minimize foods with added sugars as well as foods with high amounts of salt  
  • Limit or avoid alcohol  

Eating foods like vegetables and whole grains can significantly increase your amount of dietary fiber, which can help improve blood cholesterol levels and lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.  

These foods also add nutrients like vitamins and minerals to your diet. Vitamins and minerals help carry oxygen in the blood, optimize your immune system, and improve digestive function — all important for supporting heart health.   

Recommended reading: The DASH Diet: Is It Right for You?  

What other lifestyle habits affect heart disease prevention and management?  

In addition to what you eat and how often you move, there are other important strategies you can use to boost heart health. Here are some to keep in mind.  

Moderate calorie cutting is better than going too low. In a 2021 Circulation study, researchers observed people over 20 weeks who trimmed about 200 calories off their regular intake, while also incorporating regular exercise into their routines.   

Those people had major improvements in cardiovascular function. Participants in the study who cut about 600 calories per day actually didn’t see any change, which means the smaller shift made the bigger impact in heart health.   

Get enough sleep. Although getting enough sleep is crucial, so is ensuring that the sleep you get is restorative. Adults who sleep fewer than seven hours each night are more likely to develop health problems, including heart disease, according to the CDC.   

Learn simple strategies to improve your sleep with the 7-Day Sleep Challenge from SilverSneakers. 

Quit smoking. This means not smoking, vaping, or chewing, as well as avoiding secondhand smoke. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, smoking harms nearly every part of your body but is particularly problematic for your heart.   

Smoking can change your blood chemistry in a way that causes plaque to develop in your arteries, making it more difficult for blood to circulate to your heart and brain.  

See our sources: 
Heart disease overview: Centers for Disease Control. (2022) Heart Disease
Heart disease definition and stats: National Institutes of Health. (2022) Know the Differences
Atherosclerosis: The American Heart Association. (2021) What is Cardiovascular Disease?
Heart disease symptoms: Mayo Clinic. (2022) Heart disease
Heart disease risks: Centers for Disease Control. (2019) Know Your Risk for Heart Disease
Heart disease diet and lifestyle recommendations: The American Heart Association. (2021) The American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations
Heart disease and exercise: National Library of Medicine. (2020) https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000094.htm
Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
Fiber intake: The Journal of Nutrition. (2021) Whole- and Refined-Grain Consumption and Longitudinal Changes in Cardiometabolic Risk Factors in the Framingham Offspring Cohort
Moderate calorie cutting: Circulation. (2021) Effects of Exercise and Weight Loss on Proximal Aortic Stiffness in Older Adults With Obesity
Heart disease and tobacco: Food and Drug Administration. (2021) How Smoking Affects Heart Health
Sleep: Centers for Disease Control. (2019) How Does Sleep Affect Your Heart Health? 

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