From clogged arteries to infections, heart disease covers a lot of ground. It’s not just one thing, but a group of conditions that affect your heart and body in different ways. It can lead to problems like heart attacks and strokes, and it’s the most common cause of death nowadays.
How Your Heart Works
It has four chambers two up called atria, and two below called ventricles. Oxygen-rich blood from your lungs flows to the left atrium and then to the left ventricle, which pumps it out to your body. Blood returns to the right atrium, then the right ventricle, which sends it back to your lungs for oxygen. Four valves act like one-way doors to guide the blood through your heart. And round it goes unless you have heart disease.
Coronary Heart Disease (CHD)
CHD is the most common type of heart disease in developed countries. When you have it, a waxy substance called plaque builds up in your heart’s arteries. You won’t know it’s there at first, but over time, it narrows your arteries, like a clog in a pipe. That limits the blood flow to your heart muscle and causes angina and heart attack.
CHD can affect women and men differently. Men are more likely to have intense chest pain. Women may get tightness or pressure in the chest, but they also might just feel uncomfortable, like when a meal doesn’t sit right. They’re more likely to be very tired often and have shortness of breath and nausea. These differences may be because women tend to get blockages in the heart’s smaller arteries.
Heart Valve Disease
The valves that guide your blood through your heart are flaps that open and close with each heartbeat. Three different problems can affect your heart valves:
Atresia: There’s no opening in the valve.
Backflow: The valve lets blood go backward instead of forward.
Stenosis: The flaps get thick and less blood gets through.
Effects of Heart Valve Disease
Some people have no signs for years, while others get them all of a sudden. The pointer may be a “murmur” a swishing sound between heartbeats. Valve problems can make you more tired than usual, give shortness of breath and swelling of the ankles.
Your heart may flutter or skip a beat and it’s usually harmless. Your heartbeat is controlled by short bursts of electricity, and a minor change in those bursts typically isn’t a problem. But more serious arrhythmia can keep your heart from doing its job the way it should and cause serious problems.
When Your Heart Loses Its Rhythm
It may start to race or beat slower than normal. Your organs and muscles may not get enough oxygen. If the rhythm gets totally out of whack, your heart gets like gelatin: It quivers and can’t pump at all. This is called fibrillation, and it can be life-threatening.
This is a group of diseases that make your heart muscle thick, stiff, or larger than usual. Over time, your heart can get weaker, and it’s harder for it to pump blood and keep its regular rhythm. The most common type is called “dilated cardiomyopathy”. As it gets worse, the ventricle can’t pump very well, and blood starts to collect in your lungs and body. There may be fainting and shortness of breath.
As in other parts of your body, germs like bacteria or viruses can cause an infection in your heart, and this is considered a type of heart disease. Sometimes, infections come on slowly; other times, quickly. Some go away on their own, while others can be life-threatening if they’re not treated.
Heart Infection Symptoms
These depend on where the infection is. If it’s in the sac around your heart, you may have swelling that causes chest pain. If you have an “artificial valve” and it gets infected, germs can build up around the area and break off, causing problems with other organs in your body.
Congenital Heart Defects
These are heart defects you’re born with, and they affect how blood flows through your heart. They happen when the walls, valves, or blood vessels don’t develop the right way before you’re born. Some problems, like a hole in a heart chamber have easy fixes or don’t need treatment at all. Others, like a missing valve, may need long-term care.
How Heart Defects Affect Your Body
They don’t usually cause pain, but without regular blood flow, your body doesn’t get the oxygen it needs. That may lead to bluish skin, shortness of breath, and feeling tired. Defects often make your heart work harder, which can cause heart failure when your heart’s too weak to pump blood the way it should.
Public health estimates indicate that India accounts for approximately 60% of the world's heart disease burden despite having less than 20% of the world's population. Heart disease is the number one cause of mortality and a silent epidemic among Indians.
Heart disease is mostly preventable or treatable with the right care. Lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, regular exercise, dietary changes work wonders. For more lethal diseases advances in surgery, non-invasive interventions and heart transplantation have given a new lease of life even to dying heart patients. But, above all you must remember that your heart is the softest place on earth; so do take good care of it!
(Dr Francisco Colaço is a seniormost consulting physician, pioneer of Echocardiography in Goa)