Heart Disease: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment
What is heart disease?
The heart is one of the most critical organs – it acts to circulate blood throughout the whole body, hence providing oxygen and nutrients for the other organs to function.
Heart disease is an umbrella term that refers to different types of heart conditions. These include coronary artery disease, arrhythmias, congenital heart defects, etc. Among these diseases, many are caused by a condition called atherosclerosis, which is characterized by plaque build-ups within the arteries’ walls.
How dangerous is heart disease?
Heart disease is currently a global phenomenon. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), it is the most common cause of death in various countries, including the US, UK, Canada, Australia, etc. Every year, the number of people that die from heart diseases worldwide is about 15.7 million. The condition can affect people of every age range, sex, and occupation. Many types of heart disease require costly surgery and life-long monitoring, which causes great financial burdens on patients, their families, and the whole society.
If left untreated, heart diseases may lead to complications such as stroke, aneurysm, and sudden cardiac arrest.
How many types of heart disease are there?
Heart disease is a universal term that refers to a wide array of conditions. Some of the most common include:
- Coronary artery disease: This occurs as a result of plaque build-ups in the coronary arteries, which act to supply the heart muscles with oxygenated blood. Hence, the heart does not receive enough oxygen and nutrients to function properly. For now, it is the most popular type of heart disease.
- Arrhythmias: An arrhythmia is a problem that interferes with your heartbeat’s rhythm. It is caused by a malfunction in the heart’s electrical impulses, which makes the heart beat too quickly/ slowly/ unpredictably. Although most people do have irregular heartbeats from time to time, arrhythmia may cause serious complications – even death – if it occurs too frequently.
- Congenital heart defects: These refer to heart deformities that patients are born with. Most of the time, congenital heart defects develop while the baby is still in their mother’s womb.
- Myocardial infarction: Also called a heart attack, Myocardial infarction occurs when the blood flow is interrupted, which prevents the transportation of oxygen to the heart muscles.
- Heart failure: Heart failure is a chronic condition that results from an imbalance between your body’s supply and demand for blood. Normally, this occurs when the heart has become so stiff/ weak that it cannot pump blood properly any longer.
In addition to the above-mentioned, there are many other types of heart disease as well (e.g: dilated cardiomyopathy, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, mitral regurgitation, pulmonary stenosis).
What are the signs and symptoms of heart disease?
Depending on the type of heart disease, patients will exhibit different signs and symptoms. However, most of them share certain symptoms, including:
- Chest pain/ tightness/ discomfort;
- Shortness of breath (dyspnea), which causes difficulty in breathing;
- Fatigue – especially after exercises/ activities;
- Pain in the legs, arms, neck, back, etc. if there’s a blood vessel blockage in these parts;
- Abnormal heartbeat (for arrhythmia);
- Pale grey/ blue skin (for congenital heart defects).
Early detection is key to successful treatment of heart disease. Therefore, if you notice any of the above-mentioned symptoms, contact the doctor as soon as possible.
What are the causes of heart disease?
Each type of heart disease is caused by certain factors. Coronary artery disease occurs as a result of fatty plaque build-ups in the arteries (atherosclerosis), which stiffen the arteries’ walls and block blood flow to other tissues. For arrhythmia, common causes include stress, diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking & drinking alcohol, drug abuse, etc. In addition, if the patient already suffers from congenital heart defects, coronary heart disease and infection, they are more likely to have abnormal heartbeats.
What may increase the risk of heart disease?
Certain factors may cause detrimental damage to the heart:
- Age: As you get older, your heart muscles will become weakened and stiffened.
- Gender: Men are more likely to have heart diseases than women.
- Smoking: Nicotine is capable of causing blockages in blood vessels, which then give rise to atherosclerosis and heart attacks.
- Poor diet: Excessive consumption of cholesterol, salt and sugar will increase the risk of heart disease. In addition, it also contributes to obesity, which is a common cause of cardiovascular diseases.
- Physical inactivity: Lack of physical exercises/ sitting at work for too long contributes to obesity, which is a common cause of cardiovascular diseases.
- Poor personal hygiene: Those who do not brush their teeth/ wash their hands carefully are at higher risk of heart infections.
- Chemotherapy/ radiotherapy: Cancer patients who are treated with these therapies are more likely to have heart disease.
How to find out if you have heart disease
To diagnose heart disease, first, the doctor will conduct a physical exam to evaluate your conditions. In addition, he/she will ask questions about your medical and family history. After that, several tests may be requested, including:
- Blood test;
- X-ray imaging;
- Electrocardiogram (ECG);
- Holter monitoring;
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan;
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI);
- Cardiac catheterization;
- Stress test.
How can heart disease be treated?
Depending on the type of heart disease, the method of treatment may vary.
- Medications. Medicines such as statins, blood thinners, beta-blockers, and angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors may be taken to reduce the level of cholesterol and blood pressure, prevent blood clots.
- Surgery. In extreme cases, the doctor may resort to heart surgeries like angioplasty and coronary artery bypass surgery to widen blood vessels and enable blood flow.
- Heart transplant. Despite its effectiveness, heart transplantation is not easy to carry out due to the lack of donor organs and the risk of rejection. Sometimes, patients have to wait for years before the procedure can be performed.
- Stem cell therapy. Although new, stem cell treatment is another viable solution to heart disease. After being transplanted into the body, stem cells can aid in regenerating heart tissues, hence increasing cardiac output and tissue perfusion.
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What is Cardiovascular disease? American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/consumer-healthcare/what-is-cardiovascular-disease. Accessed on September 23, 2019.
What is Heart Disease? http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/hearttruth/lower-risk/what-is-heart-disease.htm. Accessed on September 23, 2019.
What is the heart? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/hhw/. Accessed on September 23, 2019.
Heart disease – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20353118. Accessed on September 23, 2019.
Heart disease: Types, causes, and treatments. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/237191.php. Accessed on September 23, 2019.