Heart disease, also known as cardiovascular disease, describes heart conditions that include diseased vessels, structural problems, and blood clots. The most common types are coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, cardiac arrest, congestive heart failure, peripheral artery disease, stroke, and congenital heart disease. Contrary to the stereotype that heart disease only affects older men, scientists have found that heart disease begins to affect a person’s health far earlier in life than previously thought. On a global scale, it has been a leading cause of death for both men and women since the 1950s. It’s not all grim news though, because with advances in technology that reveal the depth of heart disease, we also know risk factors to avoid as well as treatment plans.


Risk Factors

When the Framingham Heart Study first began in 1948, heart disease was emerging as an epidemic in the United States, but little was known about the general causes. The study aimed to identify common factors associated with heart disease over a long period of time by recruiting participants who had not yet developed clear symptoms. The research included over 5,000 men and women between the ages of thirty and sixty-twofrom the town of Framingham, Massachusetts. Throughout the years, the study has included second and third-generation participants to further analyze the data collected. The Framingham Study identified these major risk factors for heart disease:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Smoking

Although the participants of the Framingham Study are primarily Caucasian, other studies have shown that these risk factors universally apply across all racial and ethnic groups. In addition to identifying the risk factors for heart disease, the study also led to the development of effective treatment plans and preventive strategies. Today, diagnostic technologies such as carotid artery ultrasound, echocardiography, magnetic resonance imaging and computed tomography (CT) scans of the heart and its vessels, all play an integral role in identifying heart disease. Furthermore, genetic testing for inherited heart disease continues to develop as it identifies gene disorders such as arrhythmias, congenital heart disease, cardiomyopathy, and high blood cholesterol.


Amro’s Story

At the same time, some cases of heart disease occur suddenly and are relegated as idiopathic—an illness that is not connected to any particular cause. This is the case for my son, Amro. Shortly after his first birthday, he began to develop symptoms of a cold or flu, but over the course of a few days, his symptoms worsened. By the end of the week, our exuberant baby who was always eager to outdo his twin brother, was now lagging behind to the point the he could no longer stand up on his own two feet—literally. That’s when we knew something was gravely wrong. Although his pediatrician advised against it, we rushed him over to the emergency room where he was immediately hooked up to monitoring devices. The notion that perhaps this was just a cold abruptly diminished. Amro had heart failure. His heart was double the normal size and was functioning at a critically low level. Within hours, Amro was diagnosed with severe dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).

Cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle that makes it hard for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body. Although it is commonly an inherited disease, genetic testing did not find a link. Furthermore, none of the risk factors identified in the Framingham Study applied to Amro. Although it was a difficult time for my family, as Muslims, we believe that everything happens by the divine Will and Decree of God. Sometimes, despite all the measures and precautions we take to circumvent tragedies, it is inevitable for a challenge to pop up in life from time to time. No one is immune. At the same time, whilst we accept God’s Will, we are nonetheless responsible for appreciating our health. It is incumbent for us to live as healthy as possible and to be strong Muslims, physically and spiritually.

After two years of ongoing treatments and visits to the hospital, Amro not only survived, but his heart was restored to functioning normally. In fact, his cardiologist calls him her “miracle patient.” He continues to take daily medication, but we are nonetheless eternally grateful for this miracle. Today, Amro is an energetic and thriving kindergartner, still competing with his brother on every level.


Prevention is Essential

Health care professionals advise patients to take care of their health now because it is unlikely to last forever. Narrated by Ibn Abbas, Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) said, “There are two blessings which many people lose: (They are) Health and free time for doing good.”—Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 76, Hadith 421. From this tradition, we know it is also obligatory to value our health by refraining from anything that is harmful, and always seek ways for improvement and longevity. We are also reminded never to despair because, “God has sent down both the disease and the cure, and He has appointed a cure for every disease, so treat yourselves medically, but use nothing unlawful.”—Sunan Abi Dawud, Book 28, Hadith 3865.

The Mayo Clinic Staff suggest seven strategies to help protect your heart.

  1. Avoid smoking or using tobacco. There is absolutely no amount of smoking that is safe.
  2. Daily exercise for at least thirty minutes helps control our weight which reduces stress on the heart. Activities such as gardening, housekeeping, and taking the stairs all count.
  3. Adopt a heart-healthy diet such as the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan, or the Mediterranean diet which is rich in vegetables, olive oil, with moderate protein.
  4. Maintain a healthy weight. Carrying excess weight, particularly around the abdomen, increases the risk of heart disease.
  5. Get enough quality sleep. Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
  6. Manage stress.
  7. Get regular health screenings, which include checking your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and screening for diabetes.


Treatment Counts

For those who develop heart disease, treatments are available and vary widely. From simple lifestyle changes such as improving diet and including daily exercise, to prescription medications, or even surgery, depending on the severity of the illness. Experts all agree that it is crucial to get treatment for cardiovascular disease, particularly a heart attack, because every minute counts. Thousands of heart cells die every minute blood does not flow to the coronary artery. In the first twenty minutes when an artery is blocked, the cells become ischemic—the plaque builds up in the coronary arteries, which supply the heart muscle. This leads to the risk of permanent damage and a heart attack. If the blood flow can be restarted within the first twenty minutes of a blockage occurring, the cells have a high chance of recovery. Every fifteen minutes a patient waits before they go to the emergency room adds a 1 percent mortality.

Both men and women can experience crushing chest pain (angina) during a heart attack, but women also experience different, more subtle symptoms such as shortness of breath; nausea; extreme fatigue; pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen, or back; numbness; or cold legs or arms. Women must acknowledge that they are also at risk for heart disease. The American College of Cardiology, based in Washington, DC, found that, “Although risk factors for heart attack are similar among men and women, women are more likely to have more serious heart attacks, resulting in death…It is important to call 9-1-1 at the first sign of either typical or atypical heart attack symptoms to seek immediate medical attention.”

If you take only one thing from this article, let it be not to take heart disease lightly. Heart disease does not discriminate. It can attack anyone at any age. Live a healthy lifestyle and be vigilant about symptoms just as much as you are about avoiding risk factors. Don’t ignore your instincts. Cardiovascular disease can sometimes be found early with regular evaluations. That is why it is crucial to address symptoms when they appear. Remember Benjamin Franklin’s axiom that, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is true for many aspects of our lives, especially our health.

Asma Jarad is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor published across multiple forums. In her free time, she promotes literacy for children of all backgrounds through her YouTube channel, Sami & Amro Reading Time.