This little muscular organ, the size of a fist, is arguably the human body’s most studied organ. It has been centre-stage of medical research for decades now but continues to mystify. Strange are the ways of the heart.
Heart disease is one of Australia’s biggest killers, taking the life of 1 person every 12 minutes. According to the Heart Foundation Australia, that makes up 30% of all deaths – 28% of men and 31% of women. The latter figure also buries the myth that heart disease largely strikes men.
What is heart disease?
The term ‘heart disease’ is very broad and covers a wide spectrum of cardiac conditions from congenital defects to those acquired in adulthood through an unhealthy lifestyle. These include coronary artery disease, arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat) and cardiovascular disease.
Over time conditions like high cholesterol and high blood pressure can cause artery walls to thicken with a fatty material called plaque. That results in a narrower artery that cannot supply enough blood to the heart. A heart attack is when a blood clot completely blocks the flow of blood (and therefore oxygen) to the heart. Usually, timely medical intervention can save lives, but a heart attack can also be fatal.
Tests that can identify a heart ailment
Cardiovascular disease is a very specialised area of medicine and treatment comprises detailed diagnosis and preventive care. Among the tests taken to identify heart disease these are the most common:
- Stress test: These evaluate how the heart functions while a person is under stress, which is measured by an ECG machine while the person exercises (usually walking on a treadmill or using a stationary bike). There are also variants of this test, where detailed imaging can be obtained of a heart under stress. This is not a one-off and will need to be taken regularly on the advice of your GP.
- CT scan or MRI: These tests are used for heart ailments and to understand the damage caused by an earlier episode. This technology is highly advanced and can identify the condition of the heart tissues minutely.
Medications for high-risk patients:
There is a very complex range of medications for heart ailments – ACE inhibitors, calcium channel blockers, anticoagulants, antiplatelet agents etc. Depending on the cause of the heart ailment, your local GP may prescribe some of the following:
- Cholesterol-lowering drugs to arrest the build-up of plaque on the artery walls.
- Diuretics to expel excess water and salts from the blood stream making it easier to pump blood. This also helps reduce blood pressure.
- ACE inhibitors which expand blood vessels allowing the blood to flow more easily.
- Aspirin or other blood thinners which ease the flow of blood through the body.
In case arteries have already narrowed to a risky level, your GP and heart specialist may recommend an angioplasty.
Symptoms of a heart attack:
Some of the typical symptoms are:
- Pain or severe cramps in the chest area or below the breastbone
- Pain moving through the back, jaw, throat and arm
- A feeling of choking, sweating and nausea, dizziness or shortness of breath
What are the tests to diagnose heart attacks?
If you go to the hospital with chest pain accompanied by any of the above symptoms, to start, you will be asked about symptoms and will have your blood pressure, temperature and pulse checked. This is what may then follow:
- Electrocardiogram testing: You’ve probably have seen an ECG. The activity of the heart is recorded through electrodes attached to the skin. A recording is visible on the screen in form of waves. The way an attack is identified is when the injured heart muscles don’t conduct electrical impulses.
- Echocardiogram: Based on a similar technology as an ultrasound, an echocardiogram uses sound waves to create an image of the heart. If there are areas of the heart not pumping as they should, the image will show it.
- Chest X-ray: This will indicate the size of the heart and blood vessels.
- Angiogram: Medically referred to as a coronary catheterization, a liquid dye is injected into the leg and traced to the heart. The dye is visible in an X-ray revealing the location of the blockage.
- Blood test: Typically, a blood test taken during a heart attack will show traces of a heart enzyme.
Causes of poor heart health
Heart disease is often a combination of factors we can’t change and behaviour we can. And together they comprise the risk of heart failure we carry. While we can do little to fix congenital defects or genetics, we can amend a poor lifestyle that can cause heart disease. Some of the behaviours and conditions that can accelerate heart disease are:
- High cholesterol, brought on by a high-fat diet and lack of exercise
- High blood pressure – the result of a high sodium diet and sedentary lifestyle.
- Smoking, alcohol and drug abuse.
- Diabetes – brought on by a high-sugar diet.
Managing heart ailments
As with most lifestyle conditions, ‘everything in moderation’ is the basis of a heart ailment management plan.
- Smoking is a no-no. Alcohol is alright occasionally and in moderation.
- Regular exercise, some of it cardio. A regular brisk walk is better than the occasional intense cardio workout.
- A balanced, low-fat, low sodium diet. Bad fats to be avoided entirely and good fats to be taken in moderation. There are many recommended diets, but the secret is in finding the one that works for you.
- Control stress in your daily life.
If you’ve been having regular check-ups and blood tests the risks will be detected early on and will be easier to manage. Speak to your GP if you have any concerns.