When it comes to heart disease it is wise to listen to both your heart and mind.
This is especially true as the symptoms of heart problems may be less dramatic than the movies would have you think. Rather the signs can be more subtle and will gradually develop over time. As the biggest threat to mortality for those living in Australia is heart disease, awareness of the signs and how best to prevent heart disease is wise.
To illustrate this, statistics show that by the age of 40 the lifetime risk of coronary heart disease is ‘one in two for men and one in three for women’. For those over 60 the risks are even greater. Ultimately heart disease effects one in six Australians.
With such strong evidence to support the need to look after your heart, knowing how best to manage its health, seems mandatory for the prospect of a better quality of life in the future.
Potential problems with your heart
There are many forms of cardiovascular disease, yet coronary heart disease is the most common form and presents itself in two major forms as heart attack and angina. As we age, arteries that supply the blood to the heart can become damaged and narrowed. This is due to the build up of plaque, a wax like, fatty material that can slowly build up on the inner wall of the coronary arteries. As blood flow provides the oxygen supply that is essential for the function of the heart, any disruption, whether sudden or gradual, is best to be avoided. Angina and heart attack both have this disruption to blood flow in common.
The most common reason for a heart attack is due to a blockage of one or more of the coronary arteries. The plaque previously mentioned that builds up inside an artery, can rupture. This causes a blood clot to form on the surface of plaque. When the clot becomes large enough, then a blockage to blood flow in the artery occurs.
Heart attacks can also be caused by the less common Coronary Artery Spasm and can occur in arteries unaffected by plaque. Although the cause is unclear, smoking, stress, extreme cold and certain drugs could be related to this condition.
Although the common sign of heart attack is chest pain or discomfort, it can also cause pain in other places such as the back, arm, neck or jaw or have symptoms like shortness of breath and nausea. Further there can be more subtle symptoms such as excessive fatigue or the feeling of a heavy chest after simple activities that have required little exertion. Women are more likely to have symptoms outside these, such as sudden sweating, light-headedness, dizziness, vomiting or a burning sensation in the chest that feels similar to heartburn.
Of most importance with a suspected heart attack is knowing that time is of the essence, highlighted by cardiologists who use the phrase: “time is muscle”. This is because, thousands of heart cells die every minute that blood flow is stopped in the coronary artery. If not treated quickly then this section of the heart will die due to lack of oxygen, and be replaced with scar tissue. In other words, the faster blood flow is restored to the heart, the greater the chances of survival and a full recovery, so in this sense every second counts following a heart attack.
As opposed to a full blockage, angina is associated with only a temporary reduction in the heart’s blood supply. Seeking immediate treatment for angina may mean that there is no long term harm to the heart muscle, yet leaving the condition untreated increases the risk of a heart attack.
Commonly felt as a tight or squeezing sensation in the chest, angina can also be felt in the shoulders, back, neck and arm. It may also be expressed as a shortness of breath or discomfort, rather than just pain, and can be brought on by extreme emotions, cold temperatures or even a large meal.
Determining the type and extent of heart disease
The gradual building up of fatty deposits that constitute plaque, can easily be attributed to an unhealthy lifestyle. More specifically these elements include a diet high in cholesterol and saturated fats, smoking, obesity and a lack of exercise. Unmanaged conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure also play there part, as do certain genetic factors.
Having a full medical history and examination by your Doctor may lead to the recommendation of a blood test, specialist advice and further investigation. This will most likely include the use of an electrocardiogram (ECG) that measures the heart’s electrical impulses. This device can also be used for an exercise stress test, where the heart is monitored during exercise on a bike or treadmill. To see where the actual narrowing and blockages caused by plaque are located, another test may be used where dye is injected into the coronary artery and monitored via x-ray.
Working toward a healthier heart
Whether or not you have heart disease, making lifestyle changes is the best way to reduce the risk of angina and heart attack.
Being physically active and enjoying a healthy, balanced diet will help other factors that can contribute to reducing your risks, such as lower cholesterol and maintaining a good body weight. Plenty of fruit and vegetables, replacing unhealthy fats with healthy ones and limiting alcohol consumption are also recommended. Another risk factor, high blood pressure, can be lowered by limiting sodium intake and reducing your overall stress levels through meditation and gentle exercise. Taking care of your mental health is also essential as it is known that the risk of heart disease is greater for those who have depression, lack social support or are socially isolated.
Should you develop heart disease then information and advice can be provided by your GP to help manage the condition along with appropriate medication and the co-ordination of surgical procedures. There are also more specialised cardiac rehabilitation programs available, that offer support to those who have a heart condition as well as those indirectly affected such as friends and family.
Being educated about your cardiovascular health, watching for the signs of heart disease and then taking direct action, will increase your chances of limiting the long term effects of angina or heart attack. It is also prudent to have a plan in place and ensure that those around you are informed as well.
It can be broken, sacred or true, and references to the heart are many, spanning a variety of cultures and beliefs. It has a special place in our physique, long identified as the centre of emotion, reason, purpose and understanding.
It’s significance to our health is just as great. It does more than just keep us alive, it’s health is essential to our quality of life.