Heart Disease and Cardiovascular Disease

Cardiovascular Disease (CVD)

One of the biggest causes of premature death in the UK is Cardiovascular Disease (CVD). The term describes diseases that affect the heart and blood vessels and is a catch-all name for all diseases of the heart and circulation. These include heart disease, cardiomyopathy, stroke, heart failure and atrial fibrillation. Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) and stroke are the most often seen forms of CVD.

In this country, an average of 425 people die each day from Cardiovascular Disease – that’s one every three minutes! The disease is responsible for a quarter of all deaths each year in the UK.

Although over 7 million people in the UK are currently living with cardiovascular disease, the good news is that the rate of deaths from CVD in this country has fallen by more than half since 1961.

In this article we will look at the main causes and symptoms of CVD. We will also examine the steps you can take to lower your risk of getting Cardiovascular Disease.

What Are Coronary Heart Disease and Heart Attack?

There are two main types of coronary heart disease – Angina and Heart Attack.

The heart is one of the strongest muscles in your body and it is pumping blood every second of your life. For this reason, it is imperative that the heart, veins and arteries are kept in the best possible condition.

The arteries that supply the heart are called coronary arteries. Coronary heart disease (CHD) is a result of these arteries narrowing as the inside walls of the arteries become blocked with fatty deposits. The reduced blood flow increases the chances of a blood clot occurring and blocking the artery. This condition is referred to as atherosclerosis and the fatty material is called atheroma.

When a blood clot forms in a coronary artery, it is known as thrombosis. Should the blood supply to the heart become completely blocked, this will cause a myocardial infarction, or heart attack, as it is more commonly known. Death can result if a large part of the heart has its blood supply stopped.

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the number one killer in the UK. Worldwide it is also the leading cause of death.

What Causes Heart Disease to Develop?

As explained, the buildup of fatty deposits on the walls of the arteries is what causes heart disease. This process is known medically as atherosclerosis, and takes place over a number of years. The medical name for the fatty deposits is plaques and these are made up of many substances including the fatty substance we know as cholesterol.

High levels of cholesterol in blood can cause heart disease so you should try and reduce your intake of saturated fats if you feel that you are at risk. Major sources of saturated fats included butter, milk, margarine, meat and pastries. (Further risks factors that can be contribute to heart disease are shown below.)

What Are the Risk Factors for Heart Disease?

Positive steps can be taken to lower your risk of heart disease, although some factors, such as age, will be out of your control. Risk factors include:

  • High cholesterol – The average UK diet has been found to rely on far too many fatty foods and is generally lacking in healthy foods such as fruit and vegetable. As a result, levels of high cholesterol are higher in this country than they should be. (Zoom Health offers a cholesterol test and information on cholesterol. To find out more about cholesterol, or to buy a cholesterol test click here)
  • Smoking. 1 in 5 of all heart disease deaths occur as a result of smoking. The chemicals in cigarettes can cause damage to your heart, affecting the arterial linings that lead up to your heart. Smoking may also cause thrombosis.
  • Diabetes
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Family history of heart disease or previous heart problems.
  • Lack of Exercise – we should all exercise daily, with the minimum being 30 minutes of moderate activity. Your heart will grow stronger if you regularly exercise, allowing it to pump more blood with each beat. Always make sure that physical exercise is introduced gradually at a level that is appropriate to your age and health.
  • Alcohol – It is a fact that heavy drinking will make you twice as likely to die from heart disease than it will a non-drinker.
  • Age – you are more at risk if you are a man over 45 years old or a woman over 55.
  • Being Overweight – If you are more than 20% heavier than you should be, you have a higher risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol. You are also likely to be less active. These factors combined mean that you have an increased risk of heart disease.
  • Raised homocysteine levels. These can be cause by kidney disease, low levels of folic acid, lupus and certain medicines. High homocysteine levels are thought to damage the lining of the arteries and may be contribute towards blood clots.

What Are the Symptoms of Heart Disease?

When the coronary arteries start to narrow, patients may begin to feel a tightness or pain in the chest. This is known as Angina. Sometimes the pain will spread to the left shoulder or arm and even to the jaw and neck. The pain can be triggered by stress, exercise, and even cold weather!

Another early sign of heart disease can be palpitations. This is when you are aware that you heart is not beating normally, often occurring at times when you are doing light activity.

Finally, some people don’t have any noticeable symptoms at all, yet they can still have heart disease.

If you are concerned in any way about heart disease, you should talk to your doctor and ask for their advice.

What is Angina?

The word Angina comes from Latin and literally means “chest pain”. It is the main symptom of heart disease. Patients with angina feel frequent pain in the chest, particularly after or during exercise or strenuous activity. This pain occurs because the heart is struggling to get the oxygen it needs.

An angina attack can last for minutes and usually stops once rested. Often angina is mistakenly confused with indigestion because the sensations of burning and tightness can be very similar.
Angina is a serious distress signal being sent by your heart. When you suffer from Angina, it can because your coronary arteries are blocked, stopping blood getting to your heart. Or your heart is working harder than normal and not getting sufficient oxygen.

What Are the Symptoms of a Heart Attack?

Statistically, you are most likely to have a heart attack in the morning, sometime between 5am and 10am. 70% of people will survive a heart attack.

When a heart attack takes place, one or more of these warning signs may be sent by your body, including:

  • Pain or discomfort in the centre of your chest, often lasting for more than a few minutes.
  • Mild or intense pain, spreading to the shoulders, necks and arms.
  • Chest pains accompanied by dizziness, sweating, fainting or shortness of breath.
  • Cold, clammy skin and nervousness.
  • Irregular or increased heart rate.

If you suspect that you, or somebody near you, is having a heart attack, you should call for an ambulance immediately.

What Can I Do to Reduce the Risks of Heart Disease?

You can take positive action to reduce your chances of having a heart attack or contracting heart disease . Avoiding the risk factors is the easiest way to improving your cardiac health. For example, give up smoking, exercise more and plan a healthier diet.

Taking an aspirin every day has been shown to reduce the chances of having a heart attack. But this course of action should only be done after seeking medical advice.

Also, women undergoing H.R.T. (Hormone Replacement Therapy) have been shown to be less likely to suffer a heart attack.

What Can I Do If I’m Worried about Developing CHD?

The NHS offers a free health check which will assess your chances of getting CHD. To be eligible you must be:

  • Between 40 and 74 years old and resident in England
  • Between 40 and 64 and resident in Scotland
  • A resident of Northern Ireland (where this called a cardiac risk factor assessment)

How Is Heart Disease Diagnosed?

A diagnosis normally only takes place after a person shows symptoms of heart disease.This means that the unfortunate reality is that a heart attack is often the first indicator of a problem.

Your doctor may arrange a physical examination and tests if you have symptoms that suggest you may be suffering from heart disease. The types of tests that might be carried out include an electrocardiogram (ECG), chest x-ray or a coronary angiography.

An ECG test will monitor your heart’s activity and will show if there are any problems with the heart’s rhythm. This test will also show if you have previously suffered a heart attack or if your heart is enlarged.

Sometimes and ECG test will be conducted after you have been asked to exercise on a treadmill. This is because some heart problems only appear when the heart heart has been made to work hard. This is called a stress test.

A test that explores the coronary arteries may also be conducted. This is known as a coronary angiography and it will show if any of the arteries are blocked or dangerously narrowed.

What Treatment Is Available for Heart Disease?

Being diagnosed with heart disease can be very stressful and worrying. However, positive actions can still be taken at this stage to reduce the chances of a heart attack.

A change in lifestyle and accompanying medication is the preferred course of action when the heart is not too damaged. Drugs that reduce the heart’s demand for oxygen are known as beta-blockers. You may also be prescribed nitrates to reduce your blood pressure or diuretics to improve the flow of urine and help lower blood pressure.

Severe damage to the heart may require surgery. The two main types of surgery are known as angioplasty and a coronary bypass.

When heart disease and angina is not widespread, a heart bypass can be highly effective. This involves taking a blood vessel, usually from the leg or chest, and grafting it onto onto the blocked artery, thus bypassing the blocked region.

The ability to exercise will be improved by such an operation and symptoms will be reduced as well as the amount of drugs that need to be taken..

An angioplasty operation is designed to improve the flow of blood. A balloon is placed inside the coronary artery. It is inflated and then deflated in order to try and improve the passage of blood.The patient remains awake during the operation and the balloon is removed afterwards. If this procedure does not improve things, a bypass operation may then be needed.

Surgery and medication can help to alleviate your symptoms, but it is important to remember that they can never cure your heart disease.

On very rare occasions you may be offered a heart transplant, this is where the heart is removed and replaced with a healthy heart from a donor. However, the severe lack of donors means that this option is only possible for those who have an advanced case of CHD.

Should Treatment Be Sought Straight after a Heart Attack?

On average, it take an astonishing two hours for most people who have suffered a heart attack to seek medical advice. Often this is because the pain is misdiagnosed as indigestion or they just wait, hoping that the pain will go away. Those that survive heart attacks in this way will be left with permanent damage to the heart, which normally takes place in the first hour of the attack.

A heart attack builds up slowly and can actually last for between 4 and 6 hours. During that time, tissue that is is deprived of oxygen will deteriorates and die, causing lasting damage. for this reason, if you suspect that you are suffering from a heart attack, you a should call for emergency help straight away as every minute can be vital.

What Happens after a Heart Attack?

When the blood supply to the heart is cut off for a long time, irreversible damage is caused to the muscle cells in the body and permanent injury, or even death, can occur.

A mild heart attack is one that affects less than 10% of the heart. When more than 40% is damaged, death can occur.

Surviving a heart attack is a signal for your to change the way you live your life. This means cutting out smoking, eating healthier and taking more exercise. Your doctor can help you if you are not sure where to begin on this.

After a heart attack you may need surgery – a bypass or angioplasty. for others, medication will be enough. It all depends on how badly damaged your heart and arteries are.

Facts about Heart Disease:

  • In the UK, somebody has a heart attack every two minutes.
  • Over 275,000 people will have a heart attack each year in this country. 120,000 of those people will die as a result.
  • Coronary Heart Disease rates in this country are some of the highest in the world.
  • Heart disease is the cause of death for 1 in 4 men and 1 in 6 women.

Heart Support Groups

Over 300 affiliated Heart Support Groups provide support and hope for heart disease patients and their partners and families. Click here to find your local heart support group.

Photo Credit: Ravindra Gandhi on Flickr