If you just recovered from a heart attack or a stroke, or you were just diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, you might still be in shock. You might feel fearful and uncertain of the future.
"This can be a traumatic time," says Hunter Champion, MD, PhD, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "Before, everything seemed fine. Now all of a sudden, you're sick. You get a scary diagnosis and prescriptions for six different medications. It can be very tough to cope."
Rheumatoid arthritis almost doubles the risk of having a heart attack within the first 10 years of getting an RA diagnosis, according to the American College of Rheumatology. The good news is that a heart-healthy lifestyle and certain medications may help protect the heart.
But there's no reason to despair, says Elizabeth Ross, MD, a cardiologist and spokeswoman for the American Heart Association.
"We now have so many wonderful ways to treat people who have just been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease," she tells WebMD. "We have treatments that will not only help you recover from a heart attack or stroke, but that will also prevent future problems."
So now is the time to take action. With good medical care -- which usually means medications and sometimes surgery -- and changes to your lifestyle, you can have a huge positive effect on your health. You may even be able to reverse some of the effects of the disease. Champion urges people to see this moment as an opportunity.
"When I first see patients who have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, I tell them to think of it as an alarm clock going off," says Champion. "It's a sign that they need to make some changes in their lives. What they can't do is hit the snooze button."
The first step is to learn more about your condition. The next is to discover ways that you can overcome it.
Heart attacks, strokes, peripheral artery disease (PAD), and angina can result from the same basic cause: blockages in the arteries. These blockages often occur because of arteriosclerosis, or "hardening of the arteries." You may have heard the words before. But do you really know what's really going on?
"It's a slow and gradual process," Champion tells WebMD. "People sometimes imagine that if they could look into their arteries, they'd see cheeseburgers floating there." But it's not quite like that. "If you have cardiovascular disease, it's been something that's been developing for a while," Champion says. "You didn't get it suddenly."
Your arteries are flexible tubes that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body. Blood brings oxygen and nutrients to all of your organs and muscles.
Arteriosclerosis develops when fats, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances in the blood begin to stick to the inner walls of the arteries. These deposits are called plaques. They build up and narrow your blood vessels. They also make your arteries more brittle and rigid than healthy arteries.
As the arteries narrow, it's harder for the blood to get to the cells that need it. "The artery becomes like a clogged supply line," says Ross.
The problem gets worse if the plaque tears or breaks. Your body's natural response is to form blood clots. But these clots narrow the artery even further. They might block it off entirely. Clots can also detach and travel through your bloodstream, causing a blockage elsewhere in your body.
Genes can play a role in the development of arteriosclerosis. But treatable conditions -- such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes -- are common causes.