What is heart disease? What does this include?
Smoking is a major risk factor for developing cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), especially heart disease. Heart disease is a type of CVD which affects the heart and its blood vessels. ‘Heart disease’ can refer to a range of heart conditions, with the most common in the US being coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD occurs when plaque, a waxy substance, builds up in the walls of the arteries that supply blood to the heart.
Decreased blood flow to the heart can cause:
How does tobacco use cause heart disease?
Nicotine is a highly addictive chemical which is found in all tobacco products. Nicotine can cause an individual’s blood pressure and heart rate to increase, contributing to the narrowing of arteries, and ultimately damaging the flow of blood to the heart and body.
Smoking interferes with your body’s ability to take in and deliver oxygen-rich blood to your heart and throughout your body. When inhaled, the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke contaminate the blood. As the contaminated blood travels around the body, the toxins damage your blood vessels and can ultimately cause serious damage to your heart.
Smoking and tobacco use can:
- Increase the triglycerides (a type of fat) in your blood
- Lower HDL, or the “good” cholesterol, in your blood
- Cause blood to become stickier and more likely to clot. This increases the likelihood of blocking blood flow to the brain and heart
- Damage the cells which line the blood vessels, especially those near the heart
- Increase plaque buildup in blood vessels, narrowing the insides of the vessels
- Cause the arteries to become thicker and stiff (atherosclerosis).
Heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death for Americans. 1 in 3 US women die from CVDs, while one out of every four deaths from CVDs is caused by smoking.
What about smokeless tobacco and other tobacco products?
Alternative forms of tobacco are often portrayed as “less harmful” than cigarettes, but this is not true. Smokeless products like chew, snuff, and dissolvable tobacco still contain nicotine as well harmful substances which may increase your heart rate and blood pressure. Over time, these continual increases in heart rate and blood pressure can lead to the development of CVDs like heart disease.
A number of studies have connected the harmful effects that vapes and other vaping-related products have on the body and the heart in particular. Evidence suggests that long-term use of these products can damage blood vessels in the body, increasing an individual’s risk for developing one or more CVDs.
Secondhand smoke & heart disease
Even individuals who don’t smoke can be affected by the negative consequences of tobacco use. People who don’t smoke, but are exposed to secondhand smoke, are at an increased risk (25 – 30% higher) of developing CAD than those who are not exposed.
In the US, upwards of 30,000 deaths per year from CAD are caused by secondhand smoke. Exposure to secondhand smoke also increases your risk of experiencing other medical issues such as strokes and heart attacks.
There are a variety of factors which influence a person’s likelihood of developing heart disease. In addition to first and secondhand smoke exposure, other risk factors for heart disease include:
- High blood pressure
- Poor diet
- Physical inactivity
- High LDL (or bad) cholesterol
- Excessive alcohol consumption
People who use tobacco are not automatically going to develop heart disease. However, you are much more likely to develop heart disease if you smoke and/or use tobacco products. The best way to decrease your chances of developing a condition like heart disease is to not smoke or use tobacco products at all. People who quit smoking see an immediate improvement in their heart health and reduce their risk of developing a CVD. Within a year, the risk of suffering a heart attack drops significantly.
A good way to reduce your risk of developing heart disease is to follow the ABCs of heart health:
- Aspirin – aspirin may help to reduce your risk for heart disease
- Blood Pressure – control your blood pressure
- Cholesterol – manage your cholesterol
- Smoking – quit smoking or don’t start
Changes in certain lifestyle choices can also help to decrease your risk. These include avoiding secondhand smoke, eating a low-fat, low salt diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, limiting your alcohol use and making sure other health conditions like diabetes are under control.
Speak with your doctor about any concerns you may have or what you can do to reduce your chances of developing heart disease.
The signs and symptoms of heart disease can vary, depending on what condition you are suffering from. General early indicators include symptoms like:
- Chest pain, tightness, and pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper belly or back
- Pain, numbness, weakness, or coldness in the legs and/or arms
- Swollen legs, ankles, or feet
- Irregular heartbeat
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting
If you are experiencing heart disease symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, or fainting, seek out emergency medical care and ALWAYS call 911 or emergency services if you believe you may be having a heart attack.
You can also find more information on heart disease prevention in New Hampshire from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Heart Disease page.
- New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services’ Heart Disease Prevention Program
- CDC on Smoking and Heart Disease and Stroke
- FDA on How Smoking Affects Heart Health
- Mayo Clinic on Smokeless Tobacco
- National Institutes of Health: damaging effects of vaping, smoking on blood vessels
If you’re considering quitting tobacco
If and when you are interested in quitting, help is available, free of charge, including medication and counseling support from former smokers. Speak with your doctor at your next visit, or visit our quitting page to learn more and get started.