WVAC 911: Heart disease — It’s not someone else’s problem

The term “heart disease” conjures up images of arteries filled with plaque (atherosclerosis). Sometimes we picture “hardening of the arteries” (arteriosclerosis), in which coronary arteries become thick and lose their elasticity. We often associate these types of heart disease with people who are obese, smoke, don’t exercise or eat too many hamburgers. So, if we maintain a healthy weight, stop smoking, exercise and eat better we have nothing to worry about, right? Wrong.

February is American Heart Month — dedicated to raising awareness about heart disease. It’s time for all of us to realize this is not someone else’s disease. Heart disease, of which there are many types and causes, kills more people in the U.S. than all types of cancers combined. In fact, 267,000 women die each year from heart attacks — six times more than the number of women who die from breast cancer. Furthermore, sudden cardiac death (SCD) is the largest cause of natural death in the U.S., causing about 325,000 adult deaths each year. It is responsible for half of all heart disease deaths.

Think of your heart as a pump powered by electricity. The heart’s chambers, valves, vessels and muscle are magnificently designed for architectural coordination of structure and function. Heart disease can strike any one of, or multiple components. Not only do we need to be aware of how to protect our heart’s physical integrity, but also its electrical continuity. Disease affecting either structure or function can cause a slow, agonizing death, such as the case with congestive heart failure in which patients drown in their own fluids, or unexpected, sudden death such as arrhythmias resulting in cardiac arrest.

Some causes of heart disease are beyond our control. We can’t control our genetics, age or gender, but we can control a multitude of other causes:

  • Smoking;
  • Poor diet;
  • High blood pressure;
  • High blood cholesterol levels;
  • Diabetes;
  • Obesity;
  • Physical inactivity;
  • Depression and anxiety;
  • Stress;
  • Infections;
  • Disease in other organs, such as the kidneys, which contribute to electrolyte disturbances.

Types of disease

Coronary artery disease isn’t just clogged arteries. It can involved the structural integrity of the coronary arteries, as seen in spontaneous coronary artery dissection which is a sudden tear causing acute bleeding into the vessel wall. This accumulation of blood creates a blockage, restricting or preventing blood flow to the heart muscle. It can cause a heart attack as well as sudden cardiac arrest, striking without warning. Most victims are young and otherwise healthy women with no history of familial heart disease. Many are either pregnant or in the post-partum period.

Arrhythmia is an irregular heartbeat occurring when the electrical impulses that coordinate your heartbeats don’t work properly. Arrhythmias can be brought on by congenital heart defects, but also by electrolyte imbalances, either due to lifestyle or congenital issues. Arrhythmias such atrial fibrillation (a-fib) dramatically increase one’s risk of stroke. Other arrhythmias, such as ventricular tachycardia (v-tach) and ventricular fibrillation (v-fib) kill instantly if CPR, a defibrillator or other emergency medical interventions cannot resuscitate the victim.

A congenital defect of the heart’s structure, such as in atrial septal defect (ASD), is a hole in the wall between the two upper chambers of the heart.  Sufferers often do not know they have the condition. The valves of the heart can be afflicted by disease as they are vulnerable to damage by infections. In addition, the heart muscle itself can be permanently damaged by disease or infection, as seen in cardiomyopathy. Pediatric cardiomyopathy is one of the leading causes of cardiac death in children, but an explanation for why it occurs remains unknown.

Our preoccupation with and fear of other conditions such as cancer, seems to obscure the fact that we are more likely to not only be afflicted by heart disease, but also die from it. In addition, the stereotypical, yet erroneous, image of the type of person who gets heart disease continues to remain steadfast. To truly comprehend the face of heart disease, all we have to do is look in the mirror and accept the fact that one in three adults in the United States have some form of heart disease. It’s time for all of us to realize this is not someone else’s disease.

The Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps Inc. is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation. Information: wiltonambulance.org, facebook.com/WiltonVolunteer Ambulance Corps