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."
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of U.S. men and women, accounting for 40% of all U.S. deaths. That's more than all forms of cancer combined.
Why is heart disease so deadly? One reason is that many people are slow to seek help when symptoms arise. Yes, someone gripped by sudden chest pain probably knows to call 911. But heart symptoms aren't always intense or obvious, and they vary from person to person and according to gender.
Because it can be hard to make sense of heart symptoms, doctors warn...
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."