Heart Disease

Capital Cardiovascular Specialists PLLC

Heart disease is a broad term used to describe problems with the heart muscle itself, the blood vessels, and the electrical system of the heart. There are numerous forms of heart disease including arteriosclerosis, angina, congestive heart failure, heart attack, and stroke. To understand heart disease, it is necessary to know how the heart works.

How Your Heart Works

Your heart is a pump. It is a muscular organ about the size of your fist. Arteries carry oxygenated blood away from your heart. Veins carry deoxygenated blood from your body and lungs back to your heart.

The heart is located slightly left of center in your chest. It is divided into the right side and the left side. The right side of the heart collects and pumps blood to the lungs through the pulmonary arteries. The lungs refresh the blood with a new supply of oxygen, making it turn red.

Oxygen-rich blood then enters the left side of the heart and is pumped through the aorta to the body to supply tissues throughout the body with oxygen and nutrients. This movement of blood is made possible by the four valves that keep blood moving in the right direction.

Your heart also has electrical wiring, which keeps it beating. This electrical wiring, the conduction system, keeps your heart beating in a coordinated and normal rhythm, which in turn keeps blood circulating.

Coronary Artery Disease

The most common cause of heart disease is coronary artery disease, also called atherosclerosis or arteriosclerosis. This term is used to refer to conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels. It is caused by a buildup of fatty plaques in your blood vessels that prevents blood flow to the heart, brain, and other vital organs. According to the American Heart Association, coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States.

If blood flow to the heart is blocked, you could develop angina or have a heart attack. If the flow of blood to the brain is blocked, you could have a stroke. If blood does not reach the blood vessels in the legs, you could experience claudication (leg and calf pain with walking).

All of these conditions can be prevented by keeping your blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol levels controlled; maintaining a good exercise regimen; and refraining from tobacco use.

Valvular Heart Disease

The valves that control the direction of the blood flow through the heart can also malfunction. As blood travels through the heart chambers, four valves keep the blood from back flowing. Heart valve disease occurs when these valves do not open and close as they should, which can cause the heart to work harder and enlarge.

In some cases, malfunctioning heart valves may only cause a heart murmur that should be monitored on a regular basis. Sometimes, however, heart valves may need to be surgically repaired or replaced. If this is the case, Dr. Howell can refer you to a heart surgeon.

Symptoms & Diagnosis of Heart Disease

If heart disease runs in your family or you have other risk factors, you should see a doctor before the signs and symptoms appear. Common symptoms of heart disease include:

  •  Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue upon exertion
  • Chest pain or chest discomfort
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Swelling in the legs
  • Leg pain while walking

If you experience any of these symptoms, do NOT ignore them. Seek treatment immediately. At Capital Cardiovascular Specialists, Dr. Shawn Howell will evaluate your risk factors and recommend any necessary tests to help her diagnose your heart problem. Common diagnostic tests include electrocardiogram (ECG), echocardiogram, exercise stress test, carotid artery scan, coronary angiography, and nuclear ventriculography (MUGA or RNV).

Heart Disease Treatment

Treatment for heart disease is focused on relieving symptoms and preventing progression of the disease. If you have heart disease, Dr. Howell will first recommend lifestyle changes (healthier diet, exercise, smoking cessation) to improve your symptoms.

You may also need medication if diet and exercise are not enough. The right medication for your heart condition can benefit you in many ways. Certain medications can lower your blood pressure, reduce your heart’s workload, prevent blood clots, and decrease your chances of having a sudden heart attack. Together, you and Dr. Howell will find the medication that’s best for your condition.

In addition, Dr. Howell may recommend an interventional procedure such as a coronary angioplasty and stent. More advanced cases of heart disease may require surgery such as coronary artery bypass, atherectomy, carotid endarterectomy, heart valve replacement, or implanting a pacemaker.

Tips for Preventing Heart Disease

  • Know your blood pressure and keep it under control.
  • Know your cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and keep them under control.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Don't smoke or use any form of tobacco.
  • Limit your alcohol use.
  • Reduce and manage stress.
  • Maintain routine visits with your cardiologist.


The most important component in preventing heart disease is a nutritional diet. Begin with a meal plan that includes nutrient-rich foods. Eliminate processed foods and trans fats.

Foods to Eat

  • Omega 3 fatty acids: Salmon, halibut, mackerel, nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds/flaxseed oil, chia seeds, kale, spinach, Brussels sprouts
  • Leafy greens (vitamins, minerals, and fiber): Kale, collard greens, turnip greens, Swiss chard, spinach, mustard greens, broccoli, red and green romaine lettuce
  • Berries (antioxidants): Blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries
  • Beans and legumes (protein): Soybeans, black beans, kidney beans, black-eyes peas, lentils, garbanzo beans / chick peas

Foods to Avoid

  • Fried food: Fried chicken, fried fish, French fries
  • Red meat (saturated fat): Beef, lamb, pork, veal, goat, bison
  • Trans fat (processed foods containing partially hydrogenated oil): Baked goods (cakes, cookies, pie crusts), snacks (chips, crackers), fried or battered foods, margarine, pancake and waffle mixes


Your level of physical activity also plays an important role in the prevention of heart disease. Exercise can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and help you manage your weight. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, a healthy adult should get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic exercise.

If you’re concerned about getting hurt by exercising, start off slow. Moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as a brisk walk, is safe for most people. Uncertain where to begin? Schedule an appointment so you and Dr. Howell can work together to create a plan that is right for you.

To prevent you from suffering the pain of coronary artery disease, heart attack, or stroke, cardiologist Dr. Shawn Howell will customize a program to keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose, and weight under control.

Ready to take the next step in heart-healthy living? Call Capital Cardiovascular Specialists in metro DC at (202) 466-3000 to schedule an appointment with Dr. Howell, or you can request one online

American College Cardiology American Heart Association American Society of Nuclear Cardiology American Board of Internal Medicine