Beating an average of 115,200 beats per day, hearts provide the lifeblood of oxygen and nutrients to keep our bodies alive and well. A lot goes on in those four little chambers.
Dr. Rabeea Aboufakher, section chief of cardiology at Altru Health System, explains some of the most common heart diseases, as well as risk factors and lifestyle prevention tips to keep your ticker in top shape.
Coronary artery disease (CAD)
- What it is: Coronary artery disease (CAD) is a chronic disease characterized by plaque buildup in the walls of the coronary arteries. These are the small arteries that run on the surface of the heart muscle and provide the heart with blood. Blockage can develop slowly to cause angina (chest discomfort on exertion) or suddenly to cause a heart attack.
- What you can control: High blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol through lifestyle modifications or medication. Smoking cessation is particularly important. Patients with CAD will also benefit from a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, as well as regular exercise. Weight is important, but diet and exercise matter even more. Certain medications such as aspirin and a statin reduce the risk of future cardiac events.
- What you can’t control: Family history plays a role. While you can manage high blood pressure and diabetes with lifestyle and/or medication, the onset of these conditions is not always in your control.
- Treatment: When patients suffer from a heart attack caused by a blocked coronary artery, opening the artery with a stent is life-saving. At Altru, we have a team on call 24 hours a day to make sure this therapy is offered quickly and effectively. In certain situations, bypass surgery is needed and this too is offered at Altru.
Peripheral arterial disease (PAD)
- What it is: Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a chronic disease characterized by plaque buildup in the large peripheral arteries, such as the arteries that supply the lower extremities. In severe cases, it can lead to non-healing wounds and possible amputation. A common symptom is pain and fatigue in the leg muscles with walking.
- What you can control: Similar to that for CAD, high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol through lifestyle modifications or medication. Smoking cessation is particularly important.
- Treatment: When the arteries are blocked, procedures such as balloons, stents or bypass surgery are needed. Altru offers all these treatments.
Congestive heart failure (CHF)
- What it is: Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a syndrome caused by inability of the heart muscle to pump blood adequately, failing to meet the demand of organs and tissues. Symptoms are related to fluid overload, such as shortness of breath and leg swelling. Any heart disease can result in CHF when advanced. Close follow-up is necessary to avoid fluid accumulation and hospital admissions.
- What you can control: Follow a low sodium diet and occasional fluid restriction. Keep regular check-ups.
- Treatment: Certain patients should have a defibrillator to protect them from dangerous arrhythmia. For others, a permanent monitor placed in the pulmonary artery can track fluid status and direct therapy. Altru offers all these services and will soon launch a special congestive heart failure clinic.
- What it is: Atrial fibrillation is a very common arrhythmia. The atria, or the upper chambers of the heart, fibrillate (instead of squeeze), causing fast heart rates. Symptoms include palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath and chest pain, among others.
- What you can control: Unfortunately, the only thing you can do is be aware. Keep regular check-ups.
- What you can’t control: Family history.
- Treatment: Medications are often needed to slow the heart rate. Blood thinners protect from blood clot formation inside the heart. Different treatments are available, including ablation procedure offered at Altru.
Patients who already have heart disease benefit from regular visits with their cardiologist to assess symptoms and evaluate risk. For all, checking blood pressure and cholesterol levels regularly is important to reduce risk. Stress testing can also be helpful if symptoms occur or are difficult to evaluate.