Acid reflux is a chronic condition where stomach acids leak back into the esophagus and irritate the stomach lining causing heartburn. Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a chronic condition, diagnosed by a gastroenterologist, where acid reflux occurs more than twice a week for a few weeks. GERD is generally considered a harmless disease where you have a burning sensation in your chest after eating acidic foods. Many people have GERD, 93 million people in the U.S. to be exact. Just take some antacids. No biggie, right? Wrong!

People who have GERD are more likely than others to end up with heart disease, characterized by abnormal heartbeats, plaque buildup in the heart arteries or reduced blood flow to the heart. In 2010, heart disease caused one out of every four U.S. deaths. If you have abnormal signs or symptoms, go to the emergency room.

It is important for patients and healthcare providers to be aware of health problems that might signal heart disease. Diabetes, high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol levels are known to increase heart disease risks.

New research suggests that GERD may be another risk factor. Doctors at the National Area Military Health System found that military service members and their family members with GERD were 40 percent more likely than those without GERD to end up with atrial fibrillation - a type of heart disease that causes irregular heartbeats. Atrial fibrillation can lead to stroke and heart failure. If you have chest pain, go to the emergency room.

Another study found that patients with coronary heart disease were twice as likely to have been previously diagnosed with GERD. Individuals with coronary heart disease have excess plaque buildup in the coronary arteries. In yet another study, a subset of patients who sought medical care for GERD were found to have ischemic heart disease or reduced blood flow to the heart. Scientists are not sure why a link between GERD and heart disease exists. Some think the proximity of the heart to the esophagus may cause one to affect the other.

GERD can be managed by monitoring the following behaviors: avoiding foods such as chocolate, coffee, peppermint, spicy foods and tomato products; quitting smoking; taking over-the-counter or prescribed medication or losing weight. Maintaining a healthy weight is the only known cure for GERD. Maintaining a healthy weight can also reduce risks for the different types of heart disease. Patients diagnosed with acid reflux should use that information as a reminder that maintaining a healthy weight can prevent heart disease.

People diagnosed with GERD should also remember to get annual physical exams. The key to preventing cardiovascular disease is managing your risk factors. But how do you know which risk factors you have? The best way to find out is through screening tests during regular doctor visits. Annual physicals can detect heart disease at early stages. It can also let you know if you have risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, or GERD.

If your test results are less than ideal, it does not mean you are destined to develop a serious heart disease. It means you are in a position to change your health in a positive way. Screening results can serve as a wake-up call to modify your diet and get more physical activity to prevent future heart disease.

To maintain a healthy weight, follow the Performance Triad guidelines at http://phc.amedd.army.mil/topics/campaigns/perftriad/Pages/default.aspx.

For information about heart disease, visit the Centers for Disease Control website at http://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/index.htm.

The Veterans Administration/Department of Defense Cardiovascular Clinical Practice has heart healthy materials at https://www.qmo.amedd.army.mil/QMOCPGShopCart/products.asp?cat=4.

For information on symptoms of a heart attack, visit the National Institute for Health website at http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/heartattack/signs.