Did you know that 1 in 12 (or 2.4 million) Canadians live with diagnosed heart disease? What’s more, people with medical conditions like heart disease are now at a higher risk of severe health complications from COVID-19.

In honour of World Heart Day (September 29), we’re shining some much-needed awareness around heart disease and what you can do to prevent it or reduce your risk. Here’s what you need to know:

4 common types of heart disease

Heart disease includes a long list of conditions. Four common ones are:

1. Angina

This happens when your heart doesn't get as much blood as it needs because of a blockage of one or more of the heart's arteries. It causes pain in the chest in the form of a squeezing, suffocating or burning feeling.

Angina is not a heart attack. It’s a warning signal that you’re at increased risk of a heart attack, cardiac arrest or sudden cardiac death.

2. Arrhythmia

A diagnosis of arrhythmia means you have an abnormal heart rhythm – either faster (tachycardia) or slower (bradycardia) than the typical 60-80 beats per minute.

There are many types of arrhythmias. Some have no symptoms or warning signs, some are not very serious and others may be life threatening. Symptoms vary from person to person.

3. Heart attack

A heart attack happens when the blood supply to the heart is severely reduced or stopped because of a blockage.

The narrowing of coronary arteries due to the buildup of plaque (a combination of cholesterol, fatty substances, cellular waste products, calcium and blood-clotting material) causes more than 90% of heart attacks.

The length of time the blood supply is cut off will determine the amount of damage done to the heart.

4. Cardiac arrest

This is not the same thing as a heart attack, though the terms are often (and incorrectly) used interchangeably.

A heart attack is a circulation problem; cardiac arrest is a problem that occurs when the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops functioning.

It can be caused by abnormal heart rhythms such as ventricular fibrillation. But it can also be triggered by a variety of factors including:

  • coronary heart disease,
  • a heart attack,
  • congenital heart disease,
  • electrocution or
  • recreational drug use.

Read more about the differences between heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest.

Heart attack warning signs

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada urges you to call 911 (or your local emergency number) if you (or someone you’re with) are experiencing any of these typical warning signs, which may vary from person to person:

  • Chest discomfort (uncomfortable chest pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain, burning or heaviness)
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body (such as neck, jaw, shoulder, arms, back)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Light-headedness

Heart attack symptoms: Are they different for men and women?

Heart disease affects both men and women, but not always in the same way.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, Tracking Heart Disease and Stroke in Canada, “hospitalization and death rates for cardiovascular disease increase dramatically among men at age 45 and among women at age 55.”

Female hormones offer some protection against heart disease, but that advantage disappears after menopause.

“The signs of a heart attack may be less defined in women,” says Dr. Susan Biali, a Vancouver-based physician. For example, women may experience:

  • fatigue,
  • difficulty sleeping,
  • shortness of breath,
  • chest tightness,
  • burning in the chest that feels like heartburn,
  • unusual anxiety,
  • cold sweats or
  • dizziness.

“And they can have these vague symptoms for up to a month before an actual heart attack,” Biali adds.

Heart attack risk factors

What puts you at risk for a heart attack? The Mayo Clinic cites, among others:

  • High cholesterol
  • Hypertension
  • Diabetes
  • A family history of heart attack
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Tobacco use
  • Obesity
  • Stress

Most of these are factors you can control.

What you can do to prevent heart disease

So, you know the drill: start by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and cutting back on foods that offer little nutritional value.

Exercise regularly, whether it’s a long daily walk or an at-home workout three times a week. Don’t smoke. Reduce stress.

And, what’s most important: Talk to your doctor about your risk of heart disease and what you can do to reduce it.

You may also be able to reduce your financial risk, should heart disease strike, with critical illness insurance (CII). It can provide a lump-sum payment that can help you in your recovery from specified serious illnesses such as:

  • heart attack,
  • cancer and
  • stroke.

Please note that CII doesn’t cover COVID-19. But it does cover people who suffer a covered critical illness after contracting COVID-19.