The heart is one of the most important organs in our bodies as it performs very essential functions in our life systems supplying oxygen and nutrients to body cells and tissues. It is very well protected from external injury or damage by the rib-cage. The biggest threat for the heart is, however, not external, but internal threats collectively referred to as cardiovascular disease-CVD. Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the world. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that on average, 17,9 million worldwide people die from cardiovascular disease every year. The good news is that most of the factors responsible for causing cardiovascular disease are preventable. Knowledge and early detection of these factors is key to their prevention and a longer life.
And yet, we seem to have resigned ourselves to the fact that at one stage in our lives, we are going to die from one form of cardiovascular disease or another. In this article, we are going to examine the various types of heart diseases such as heart attacks, strokes, heart failure and diseases of the blood vessels such as angina, atherosclerosis, cardiomyopathy etc. Knowledge of these diseases goes a long way towards taking the right decisions on your cardiovascular health to prevent them while on the other hand, ignorance may prove to be very costly both in terms of the quality of life and the financial implications of receiving treatment once the disease has set in. We will look at the various forms that cardiovascular disease take:
Heart Attack or Myocardial Infarction (MI)
It occurs when the arteries of the heart become too narrow due to atherosclerotic deposits or blood clots restricting blood flow to the heart muscle. The heart muscle is then starved of oxygen causing part of the muscle to die. As a result of this, the heart is unable to pump enough blood to the rest of the body. Symptoms of a heart attack are a sudden severe chest pain, spreading to the neck, jaw and down the arms. When the body does not receive enough oxygen and nutrients as a result of insufficient blood circulation, the patient will experience sweating, nausea, shortness of breath and dizziness.
Heart failure occurs when the heart is unable to pump blood efficiently around the body as a result of damage to the heart muscle caused by disease. Blood circulation becomes slow, causing excess fluid to be retained in the body which may accumulate in the lungs in the case of left heart failure (LHF) or in the lower limbs in the case of a right heart failure(RHF).
Stroke, aka cerebrovascular accident (CVA) occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted caused by a clot blocking a blood vessel to the brain or when the blood vessel is ruptured resulting in bleeding. Because of lack of oxygen and nutrients, brain cells begin to die. When the brain cells die, vital messages are no longer transmitted from that part of the brain to the limbs resulting in weakness of the limbs in the case of a mild stroke or paralysis in moderate stroke or coma and death in the event of a severe stroke.
Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) & Ischaemic Heart Disease (IHD)
The arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle are known as coronary arteries.When these arteries harden and become narrow as a result of fatty deposits on the inside lining of the vessel walls, coronary artery disease (CAD) occurs. These fatty deposits increase gradually further narrowing the arteries and reducing blood flow to the muscle of the heart, depriving the heart muscle of oxygen leading to ischaemic (IHD) heart disease and damage to the heart muscle.
Angina refers to pain in the left side of the chest which occurs on exertion such as walking up stairs, when coronary vessels are partially blocked restricting oxygen supply to the heart as a result of restricted blood flow to the heart muscle. It manifests itself as chest pain or discomfort which may spread to the jaw, neck, shoulders, arms or to the back. It is aggravated by exercise or emotional pain. Angina is an indication of the existence of atherosclerosis (plaque build-up) in the coronary vessels. The term is also used when there is a suspected heart attack but hospital tests do not reveal damage to the heart muscle on the electrocardiogram (ECG) or blood enzyme tests. Doctors perform an ECG or stress ECG, which involves walking on a treadmill, to confirm the diagnosis. If angina is confirmed, it is important to be closely monitored and that the correct medication is taken.
Atherosclerosis is the hardening and narrowing of the arteries caused by a slow build up of plaque on the inside walls of the arteries. It is a slow progressive disease that may eventually impede blood flow to the arteries of the brain, heart, kidneys and arms and legs or in a worse situation may block the flow of blood to these organs.
Cardiomyopathy is the disease of the heart muscle, which becomes enlarged, thick or rigid causing the heart to be ineffective in pumping blood to the whole body.
Rheumatic Heart Disease (RHD)
Rheumatic heart disease is a condition in which the heart valves have been permanently damaged by rheumatic fever. The heart valve damage may start shortly after untreated or under-treated streptococcal infection such as strep throat or scarlet fever. An immune response causes an inflammatory condition in the body which can result in on-going valve damage.
Rheumatic heart disease is caused by rheumatic fever, an inflammatory disease that can affect many connective tissues, especially in the heart, joints, skin, or brain. The heart valves can be inflamed and become scarred over time. This can result in narrowing or leaking of the heart valve making it harder for the heart to function normally. This may take years to develop and can result in heart failure.
Rheumatic fever can occur at any age, but usually occurs in children aged 5 to 15 years old. It’s rare in developed countries like the United States.
Untreated or under-treated strep infections can increase the risk for rheumatic heart disease. Children who get repeated strep throat infections are at the most risk for rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease.
In the next article we will be looking at risk factors for heart disease and who is at risk of developing heart disease. These series of articles are not meant to be a complete medical advice, but are meant to raise awareness to these medical conditions. In the event of any symptoms related to the topics discussed herein proper medical advice should be obtained from your doctor.