Men's Health Focus: Cardiovascular Disease

Happy older couple with good cardiovascular health holding each other outdoors

For the first two weeks of Men's Health Month, we've been focusing on the general lack of participation men often take when it comes to protecting and maintaining good health, and the negative results. We also want to introduce a variety of specific health-related issues commonly facing men, and provide information and tips for prevention, detection and treatment.

One of the largest and most serious health issues all Americans—especially men—are currently facing is cardiovascular disease.

Cardiovascular disease is a blanket term that includes three major types of diseases of the heart and blood vessels: hypertension (high blood pressure), coronary heart disease, and stroke. More than 32 million American men suffer from one or more of these conditions, and every year nearly half a million of them die from them. That is more than cancer, lung disease, accidents and diabetes combined.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the likelihood of developing some kind of cardiovascular disease. If any of the following are true about you, make an appointment to see the doctor today:

  • An immediate family member was diagnosed with hypertension or other heart condition before age 55.
  • You are African-American (African-American men have the highest rate of cardiovascular disease in America, followed by Caucasian men and then Latino men).
  • You get little or no exercise.
  • You are obese.
  • You eat a diet high in salt.
  • You have high cholesterol
  • You smoke (smokers are 2-4 times more likely to develop heart disease than nonsmokers).
  • You have high blood pressure.
  • You're under a lot of stress.
  • You have more than two alcoholic drinks every day.
  • You drink a lot of coffee (not decaf).
  • You have diabetes (more than 80 percent of people with diabetes die of cardiovascular disease).
  • You're taking medication that affects blood pressure. (Ritalin, steroids, migraine medications, any OTC drugs containing pseudoephedrine, and/or any medication with caffeine).
  • You're 45 or older.

Naturally, there's nothing you can do about your age, family history or ethnic background, but there's plenty you can do about all the other risk factors listed above. Understanding the different types of cardiovascular diseases and what causes them is also an effective weapon for prevention detection and treatment. Let's take a closer look at each type of cardiovascular disease.


Blood pressure is a measurement of how hard your blood pushes against the walls of your blood vessels as it flows through your body. The higher the pressure, the harder your heart has to work to do its job. Your blood pressure rises and falls throughout the day, and that's perfectly normal. However, at least a quarter of American men have consistently high blood pressure, which puts a continual strain on the heart and blood vessels and increases the risk of damage to the heart, eyes, kidneys and other organs, and increases the risk of having a heart attack or a stroke.

The good news? high blood pressure can be treated easily and safely. The bad news? It causes no obvious symptoms.

Millions of men don't even know they have high blood pressure. Diagnosing high blood pressure is easy—simply have your blood pressure checked regularly. However, because men are less likely than women to visit their doctors, they're also less likely to be aware of their blood pressure levels. The causes of high blood pressure are typically unknown. You can have high blood pressure for years and not know it, which is why It is called the "silent killer."


Despite all the negative things we hear about cholesterol, the fact is that you couldn't live without it. Cholesterol helps build the walls of every cell in your body; it's involved in making hormones and helps you digest your food. However, when your body has more cholesterol than needed, the excess goes directly into the bloodstream where it begins to clog blood vessels. That, in turn, increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Besides making our own, we get cholesterol from the foods we eat. It's found only in animal-based products such as meat, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, and cheese. Non-animal plant foods such as nuts, oils, and avocados, contain saturated fats, which your body also converts into cholesterol during digestion.

To measure your cholesterol level, you'll need a simple blood test. The results will reveal there are actually two different kinds of cholesterol: LDL and HDL.

  • LDL (low-density lipoprotein) is the "bad" cholesterol that clogs the blood vessels. An LDL score of 100 or less is considered optimal. A score of 130 or more means you're at risk of developing heart disease.
  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein) is "good" cholesterol because it actually removes the LDL. A score of 40 or less may increase the risk of heart disease while a score of 60 or more indicates a lower risk of heart disease.

An ideal total cholesterol number—the LDL number plus the HDL number—is below 200. 200 to 239 is considered moderately high; 240 and above is high.


Coronary Heart Disease is the leading cause of death among American adults and the leading killer of men in the United States, causing almost half a million deaths each year. Half of these deaths occur suddenly, without prior symptoms or warning. However, if the risk factors leading to a heart attack are identified early enough, 85% of sudden heart attacks may be prevented. There are two main types of heart disease:

  • Heart Attack. The arteries that supply blood to the heart get blocked, cutting off its oxygen supply. Without oxygen, parts of the heart die and it malfunctions.
  • Angina. Chest pain caused by a reduced blood supply to the heart.
  • Congestive Heart Failure. The heart can't pump enough blood.

The main culprit behind these conditions is atherosclerosis, which is the gradual buildup of plaque on the inside of the arteries. This plaque is made up of cholesterol, calcium, and normal cellular waste products. The more plaque, the less blood can flow to the heart and other organs. But the real danger occurs when the plaque ruptures, causing blood clots. If a blood clot blocks an artery, no blood can get through. If this happens near the heart, a heart attack occurs. If it happens near the brain, a stroke occurs.

Summit Medical Group offers a Cardiac Calcium Screening to help predict Coronary Heart Disease risk at an early stage, before symptoms occur, and for up to 10 years after the scan. The exam uses high resolution, rapid CT to take multiple angle X-rays that create 2-D images of the beating heart. Our physicians analyze the CT to provide a calcium score for risk of cardiac artery blockage. The screening is offered at the Summit Diagnostic Center at Deane Hill, located at 7211 Wellington Dr. (lower level), in Knoxville. Schedule your screening by calling 865-588-8005.


Most heart attacks are caused by a blood clot resulting from ruptured plaque. Men suffer heart attacks an average of 10 years younger than women do, and they're more likely to die of heart disease than women of the same age. Sadly, half of the men who die of heart disease weren't even aware that they had a problem. If you experience any of the following, contact your doctor immediately:

  • Pressure or squeezing in the center of the chest
  • Pain that spreads over the shoulders, neck, and arms
  • Increased heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Irregular heartbeat


Nearly seven million men suffer from angina, a temporary pressure in the chest or down the left arm that typically lasts 15 minutes or less. Most men who have angina describe their symptoms as "uncomfortable," as opposed to "painful."

Having the symptoms of angina can actually be a fortunate experience, because unlike many other cardiovascular diseases, angina is an obvious marker that tells you something is wrong with your heart. It's better to have a little pain and get treatment, than have no symptoms at all and suffer a sudden heart attack. If your symptoms are similar to these, it is vital your make an appointment to see your doctor immediately.


Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)—a reduction in the heart's pumping capacity—is usually a condition that starts many years before it's ever noticed and gradually worsens over time. During CHF, the heart tries to compensate for lost capacity by getting bigger and pumping faster. In order to make sure that the most important organs—the heart and the brain—have adequate blood supply, the body diverts blood away from other less-important organs. At the same time, the body starts retaining fluids, which back up into the lungs and other parts of the body.

More than two million men currently suffer from CHF and about 300,000 are diagnosed each year. It is the leading cause of hospitalization for people aged 65 and older. Symptoms can include a shortness of breath, fatigue, dizziness, low blood pressure, sudden large weight gain, frequent nighttime urination and swelling of the lower legs and ankles. There is no cure for CHF. However, if you manage it correctly, you can live a long, healthy, productive life.


A stroke occurs when one of the blood vessels that keep the brain supplied with oxygen gets blocked or bursts, depriving the brain of the oxygen it needs to function. Nerve cells start dying within a minute and as they die, the functions they control stop working. Although our bodies replace dead cells everywhere else in your body, brain cells aren't replaced—which means that damage done by a stroke is permanent.

The most common side effect of a stroke are numbness or inability to move the arm, leg or facial muscles on one side of the body. Other common effects include depression, visual problems, and difficulty speaking or understanding speech.

  • Warning signs of a stroke come on suddenly and unexpectedly and include:
  • Confusion, or difficulty speaking or understanding speech
  • Numbness or difficulty controlling one side of the face or one side of the body
  • Vision problems
  • Difficulty walking or loss of balance, or trouble holding onto things
  • Severe unexplained headache

If you notice any of these symptoms in yourself or anyone around you, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Again, the damage caused by a stroke is permanent and gets worse with each passing moment.


If your doctor believes that you have any type of cardiovascular disease or are at risk of developing one or more, he'll probably tell you to do one or more of the following:

  • Take aspirin every day. Talk to your doctor first, though, and don't exceed the dose he suggests. Aspirin prevents blood clots which can trigger heart attacks.
  • Have regular physicals. Make sure to tell your doctors about any uncomfortable symptoms— especially chest pain and shortness of breath while resting.
  • Lose weight. As weight increases, so does blood pressure. Losing weight will have an immediate effect on your blood pressure.
  • Get into a regular exercise routine. Being active cuts your risk of developing high blood pressure by 25 to 50 percent.
  • Limit alcohol intake to two drinks a day or less.
  • Limit non-decaf coffee consumption to two cups a day.
  • Reduce stress.
  • Quit smoking. There is no safe level of smoking. Every cigarette does damage.
  • Change your diet. Opt for lower sodium options, avoid saturated fats/hydrogenated oils, eat whole grains, eat fish/take an Omega-3 supplement, limit red meat and eggs, and eat more garlic.
  • Get a pet. Research has shown that petting animals, and even looking at fish in an aquarium lowers blood pressure.
  • Brush your teeth. Some interesting recent research suggests that there may be a connection between gum disease and an increased risk for heart disease and stroke.

In addition, your doctor might also prescribe some drugs to lower your blood pressure or cholesterol. If he does, be sure to tell him about all other medications or over-the-counter drugs you take, since some combinations of drugs can cause trouble. And don't stop taking the medication—even if you're feeling great— unless your doctor advises you to.

By following your doctor's advice and establishing a schedule of regular check-ups, you will be able to better prevent, detect and treat any of the symptoms that can lead to cardiovascular disease. Make the commitment, schedule the appointment, and follow your doctor's orders.

Good health and a better life start with you.