You hear so much talk about "heart disease."  What exactly does this term mean? What should you as a medical professional be looking out for in these patients?  Even though you may not be working on a cardiac unit, the hospital is a place where many individuals have cardiac events.  Make sure that you are prepared for how to help your patients if they have a cardiac issue.

Heart Disease - A Critical Guide to America’s #1 Killer


You might expect death rates associated with heart disease to decrease on a year to year basis as advancements in medicine and technology are made, however, the opposite seems to be true. Heart disease continues to kill hundreds of thousands of people a year, close to 1 in 4 people to be exact, and surprisingly, death rates from heart disease have even seen a bump in recent years.

In your time as a nurse, chances are you will work with numerous patients struggling with heart disease. Don’t miss this quick guide to understanding why heart disease affects so many people and how nurses can contribute to a disease management plan.

What Is Heart Disease?

One of the reasons so many millions of Americans are diagnosed with “heart disease” is because it is truly an umbrella term for a variety of conditions which affect the heart and cardiovascular system (though “cardiovascular disease” is typically used in the medical field to describe conditions which directly affect the narrowing, weakening, and blocking of blood vessels).

Some conditions which may fall under the scope of heart disease include:

  • Coronary artery disease

  • Congenital heart defects

  • Arrhythmia

  • Atherosclerotic disease

  • Endocarditis

  • Congestive heart failure

  • Valvular heart disease

  • Dilated cardiomyopathy

  • Peripheral artery disease

While some forms of heart disease are caused by genetic abnormalities or infections, most heart disease is actually preventable with proactive lifestyle habits like eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly.

Symptoms of Heart Trouble

If you have a patient experiencing any of the following symptoms, they may need to seek medical treatment for a heart-related illness.

  • Chest pain, tightness, pressure, or discomfort

  • Pain in the jaw, neck, upper back or abdomen, or throat

  • Shortness of breath

  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting

  • Rapid (fluttering) heartbeat or slower than normal heartbeat

  • Blue or pale gray skin

  • Swelling around the eyes or in the legs, abdomen, hands, or feet

  • Numbness or weakness in the legs or arms

  • Fatigue or quick to exhaustion

As a nurse you will typically be informed beforehand if your patient has a diagnosed heart condition, however, it is critical that you keep an eye out for warning signs of a heart event like a heart attack, aneurysm, cardiac arrest, and heart failure.

Risk Factors for Heart Disease

When it comes to the all-encompassing heart disease, certain factors increase patient risk for developing it over others. These include poor lifestyle habits like smoking, excessive caffeine and alcohol use, unhealthy diet, inactivity, drug abuse, poor hygiene (increased risk for infection), and chronic stress.

Other medical conditions can also increase the likelihood of developing heart disease because of how they compromise your body’s blood vessels. These include high blood pressure, diabetes, high blood cholesterol, and obesity.

Men are statistically more likely to develop heart disease than women, however, a woman’s risk does go up after menopause. A family history of heart disease may also increase your likelihood of heart disease as does age, as damage to the arteries and heart are more common in older adults.

Managing Heart Disease

Taking steps to mitigate the effects of heart disease will require effort on a patient’s part as well as their care network. Whether you work in a hospital, at a long-term facility, in a doctor’s office, or even as a home health nurse, you can play a critical role in the disease management process for someone with heart disease.

  • Lifestyle changes may involve a patient increasing levels of physical activity, modifying daily diets to limit saturated fats and sodium, as well as quitting smoking and limiting alcohol consumption. Heart disease can easily lead to disability, especially when the lower extremities are compromised (i.e. diabetic nerve damage, edema, etc). Nurses can recommend assistive tools to patients like mobility aids, transfer devices, and lift chairs (which are very helpful for heart disease patients recovering from an injury or struggling with mobility issues after surgery).

  • Daily monitoring of vital signs like heart rate and blood pressure can equip a patient with the tools they need to track their own health and recognize warning signs or abnormalities before they become dangerous. Nurses often serve as trainers in this respect, teaching patients and their caregivers how to properly read and record vital signs.

  • Many patients are on one or more medications to help control symptoms associated with their specific type of heart disease like high blood pressure medicine, blood thinners, and calcium channel blockers. Adhering to a prescribed medicine schedule can improve a patient’s health outcomes significantly. Care networks including nurses can support a patient’s medication management by making suggestions for utilizing pill organizers, setting smartphone reminders, and recruiting help to order refills and pick up prescriptions.

Author Biography

Jessica Hegg is the content manager at  Avid gym-rat and nutrition enthusiast, she’s interested in all things related to staying active and living healthy lifestyle. Through her writing she works to share valuable information aimed at overcoming obstacles and improving the quality of life for others.

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AuthorCourtney Tracy