The Facts About Heart Disease

cardiovascular Human heart( With heart disease accounting for, or being a major factor in almost half of all deaths in America, it’s more than appropriate that this column be devoted to a basic and frank talk about the heart, how it works; and what happens during the course of a lifetime to cause it to becomes diseased to the point of jeopardizing, or even ending our lives.

The heart is a muscle. It pumps blood to the head and body. It is about the size of your fist and sits just left of the middle of your chest.  Arteries carry blood much the same way a plumbing system carries water throughout a house. Over time, debris traveling through the pipes may collect in a bend. Debris that collects and restricts water flow is known as a clog or blockage.   Arteries and veins wind throughout the body carrying blood. Arteries carry blood away from the heart. Veins carry blood back to the heart. The heart has its own arteries to provide blood to the heart muscle:

  • The aorta supplies blood to the arteries of the heart as well as to the rest of the body.
  • The circumflex artery supplies blood to the lateral or side of the heart.
  • The right coronary artery provides blood to the back or underside of the heart.
  • The left anterior descending supplies blood to the front of the heart.

To give you some idea of their size, the coronary arteries are only about the size of a strand of spaghetti. At birth, the inside of the arteries, including the coronary arteries, is slippery – similar to a nonstick frying pan. The blood cells flows smoothly through the arteries like little small cars.

Now that what have laid some groundwork, let’s move on to the big question: What happens to an artery during a person’s lifetime?

Fatty streaks in the arteries start to develop in the first ten (10) years of life as a result of lipids (fats) moving into the cell wall of the artery. These fatty streaks may become more advanced atherosclerotic lesions in the presence of risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol, and physical inactivity. The fatty streaks may then progress to more “advanced lesions” and are often referred to as plaque. Buildups may occur in more than one place in the artery. They can occur at different points along the length of the artery.  The total closure of an artery may occur due to: a) the formation of a blood clot on the plaque; b) the buildup of plaque; c) the plaque rupturing and causing a larger blood clot to form; or, d) the plaque rupturing off the artery wall and lodging in a narrowed section of the artery. The complete blockage of the artery is called an occlusion.

An artery that is completely blocked has no blood flowing through it. If the heart muscle does not receive blood, then it does not receive nutrients and oxygen. When the heart does not receive oxygen, it experiences what is known as ischemia. This may result in heart pain (angina) or a heart attack. If this is prolonged and severe enough, it may cause a portion of the heart to die.

I guess this is as good a place as any to list some symptoms of a heart attack:

  • Angina, or heart pain, usually felt as a pressure, ache, tightness, or burning sensation under the breastbone and often extending to the neck, jaw, shoulders, or down the arm (most frequently the left arm)
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath and/or sweating   

Interestingly, diabetic patients do not “feel” angina in the same way and are more than twice as likely as non-diabetics to have a “silent” or unrecognized heart attack.  I have heard many heart attack victims describe by saying it feels like, “an elephant was standing on my chest.”   I would imagine that with this all this descriptive information and, the statistics on the death rate from heart disease, you’re wondering, “what can be done to prevent my chances of developing heart disease?”

Generally, cardiovascular disease takes a long time to develop. You may reduce your chances of developing heart disease by changing certain habits or “risk factors” as they are known.