Sunday, April 22, 2012

What You Need to Know About Heart Disease

Heart Attack or Cardiac Arrest?
Statistics indicate that several thousands of people in North America die daily of heart disease. Until last week, I wasn't familiar about the difference between heart attack and cardiac arrest, the leading causes of heart-related deaths on this planet. Now that I am a bit enlightened, I believe that it is perhaps a good idea for all of us to educate ourselves of what ails us, given a truckload of information out there that is not necessarily conveyed to us at the right time. When the heart is in a really bad shape, the outcome of neither a heart attack nor a cardiac arrest is in our control; so it might be a good idea to do something about our heart before it gets really bad and destroys us.

Heart Attack:
Plainly stated, a heart attack is a problem of difficulty in pumping blood in and through the heart as a result weak heart muscles or blocked arteries due to high cholesterol or plaque, a condition also known as 'atherosclerosis'. A cardiac arrest, on the other hand, is a damage or irregularity of heart's rhythm (too fast, too slow or just no rhythm at all), also called 'arrhythmia' or 'atrial fibrillation'. This could happen as a result of several things: Long QT Syndrome (LQTS), Brugada Syndrome, Catecholaminergic Polymorphic Ventricular Tachycardia (CVPT), Arrythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy (ARVC) or Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. Those are big and scary names, and can lead to scary heart conditions as well.

There are, however, some warning signs, and it would do us good to heed to them. Heart attacks occur due to blocked arteries and those do not happen in a day. The plaque inside the arteries builds up gradually, over the years, causing angina pain or heart attack one fine day. If we let our arteries get blocked to the extent of getting a heart attack or requiring a heart surgery, we can kick ourselves - because it is ultimately our fault. There are several risk factors, some of which such as genetics may not be in our hand, but avoiding conditions that lead to atherosclerosis is in our hands. Unfortunately, heart attack is a silent killer, in the sense, there are usually no visible symptoms until the arteries are at least 75% blocked. That sounds like bad news - almost like we are sick almost until death before we know it. That is scary, but I have good news for you. Taking precautions such as diet control, regular exercise, controlling stress, etc, can help us get on back on track towards a healthy heart. It is possible to eliminate blockages, and I have seen it happen, by doing simple things such as eating well and doing moderate exercise, and say goodbye to heart attacks.

Cardiac Arrest:
The story is slightly different in the case of cardiac arrests. There are three key warning signs that need to be noted: dizzy spells or passing out during exercise, fainting as a result of a loud noise or being startled or family history of sudden deaths due to heart failure. A simple electrocardiogram, an echocardiogram or a heart ultrasound can detect arrhythmia. Treatment options include antiarrhythimic drugs, anticoagulation therapy, electrical or chemical cardioversion, catheter ablation of the AV (atrioventricular) node, pulmonary vein antrum isolation (PVAI), etc.

It could be as simple as using drugs to control symptoms that can lead to a cardiac arrest, or go a bit further and opt for a more rigorous procedure to save your life. There are risks involved in every procedure, so its best to check with the medical professionals to determine what works best for you. One thing is true for sure: the wearer will always know where the shoe pinches. A person suffering from atrial fibrillation (AF) will know something is wrong, when something is wrong with his/her heart beats. Normally young athletes who suffer from AF are more likely to die of cardiac arrest in the middle of their routine - because they perhaps stretched themselves despite being aware that their heart rhythm was not right. A fainting spell or dizziness cannot be missed, especially if the condition is known beforehand.

In conclusion, while we cannot do everything everywhere about every thing at all times, sometimes, somewhere, we can always do something about some things. Let us do the max we can about things that matter the most.

The author is a research scientist at the University of Ottawa, and conducts multi-disciplinary scientific research related to Biophysics and Health Physics.
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