February is American Heart Month, and many health professionals are reminding us to practice healthy habits to prevent or delay heart disease.

The term heart disease actually refers to many conditions that relate to the heart and blood vessels. Three common conditions are arteriosclerosis, heart attack and coronary artery disease.

Arteriosclerosis is also known as hardening of the arteries. Arteriosclerosis happens over time as healthy, strong arteries become thick and stiff from too much pressure. As this happens, blood flow to organs and tissues can become restricted. Arteriosclerosis can happen in arteries that carry oxygen and nutrients away from your heart, which can be a cause for heart disease. This condition can occur in other arteries as well. An early sign of arteriosclerosis is pain in the area where there is hardening.

People often use the terms arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis interchangeably, but atherosclerosis is actually a type of arteriosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the result of a buildup of fats in and on the artery wall. This buildup can also restrict blood flow and cause other problems, such as a blood clot.

Coronary arteries are the major blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients to the heart. Coronary artery disease is diagnosed when these arteries become damaged or diseased. They can be damaged by arteriosclerosis, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes. Some of the symptoms of coronary artery disease include chest pain or shortness of breath.

A heart attack can occur as a result of coronary artery disease or arteriosclerosis. A heart attack happens when the flow of blood through the artery is prevented by a complete blockage from plaque buildup or because plaque on the artery wall ruptures, causing a blood clot. Symptoms of a heart attack include pressure or a squeezing pain in the middle of the chest, pain that extends from the chest to your shoulder, arm or jaw, prolonged pain in the upper abdomen, shortness of breath, sweating, fainting, or nausea and vomiting.

The good news is that your habits can greatly influence your risk for heart disease or at least delay the onset. Three things to do for optimal heart health are: don’t smoke, eat a healthy diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables, and exercise most days of the week. These good habits have a positive influence on all the things that can cause heart disease.

Jennifer Russell is an area child and family development agent for the Mississippi State University Extension Service. You may contact her at 453-6803 or jtb20@ext.msstate.edu.

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