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3 Easy Ways to Understand Heart Disease

Heart disease is the number one cause of deaths globally. But what’s actually happening in the body that is so dangerous it can lead to loss of life?

Heart disease was responsible for nearly 18 millions deaths in 2020. Over half a million adult women in Australia suffer from heart disease and it accounts for a third of deaths in females each year. But what’s actually happening in the body that is so dangerous it can lead to loss of life? Here are three easy ways to understand heart disease.

1. Hypertension

High blood pressure or hypertension is defined as a blood pressure reading of 140/90 on two or more separate occasions. To understand what is meant by high blood pressure, think of your circulatory system like a plumbing scheme. Your blood symbolizes water, your arteries, veins and capillaries represent the pipes. Now imagine a tap. When you open it half way, the flow of water from the spout has a steady force, not a trickle but not a surge. This is what healthy blood pressure should be like. Open the tap completely and you have water gushing out of it full-force, spraying your clothes, splashing outside the sink. It’s messy. That’s what high blood pressure is like. The blood is jetting around your body aggressively. Over time the pipes or larger vessels such as arteries and veins that have to contain this blood can get damaged, increasing the risk of cholesterol build up. But the smallest of our plumbing parts, the capillaries, are also subjected to this high-pressure flow and can’t cope quite as well. The capillaries create the fine lattice-like network that feeds blood into and out of our organs. High blood pressure causes capillaries to burst. The result is that small parts of our organs then have a diminished supply of life-giving blood, known as ischaemia, and effectively die, infarct. This cascade can affect the kidneys, the eyes and even the brain leading in advanced stages to complete kidney failure requiring dialysis, blindness and even dementia.

Woman having her blood pressure taken by a doctor

2. Angina

Your coronary arteries are the blood vessels that actually supply the muscle of your heart. And since your heart never stops working, it always needs a healthy supply of blood bringing oxygen and nutrients to nourish the labouring muscle. Healthy plumbing also means toxic waste products can be removed quickly. Disease of these arteries generally refers to atherosclerosis – a collection of cholesterol, inflammatory cells and other debris, stuck to the inner lining of the vessels. Hypertension causes damage in this inner lining of the walls of the arteries which makes it easier for atheroma to adhere. There are a number of other risk factors for atherosclerosis, a major one being a certain type of cholesterol called Type B or dense LDL, the one we get from the foods we know we shouldn’t eat like refined carbohydrates, and foods high in trans and saturated fat. Let’s go back to the kitchen sink analogy. Imagine you’ve fried some bacon and there is left over grease in the pan that you pour down the drain. Keep doing this over time and eventually you are probably going to have to call a plumber as greasy stuff is going to clog up your drain. This is exactly what happens in your arteries. Atheroma is like grease building up in your plumbing system. A partial block in a coronary artery can cause angina as not enough blood can flow through that vessel to the part of heart muscle that needs it causing ischaemia on a much bigger scale. The muscle starts to ache without its juice. And that ache is angina.  

heart disease

3. Myocardial Infarction

Avoiding a heart attack is what all cardiovascular treatment is essentially aimed towards. When a coronary artery becomes completely clogged by atherosclerosis, no blood at all can pass through to get to the area of heart muscle that it is supposed to feed. A completely cut off blood supply will lead to an infarct of that area of heart muscle, the myocardium. The tissue can’t function without its blood supply. It dies. Now the heart can’t do its pumping job properly and the rest of the body is at its mercy. The severity of the heart attack depends on which artery is blocked and how large its catchment area is, i.e. how much heart muscle it normally plumbs. Smaller blocked branches may only cause a minor heart attack. But blockages in the major coronary arteries can cause the heart to stop beating altogether which can be fatal. 

food for a healthy heart

Some actions you can take to reduce your cardiovascular risk are:

  1. Get your blood pressure checked with a pharmacist or your GP. Ask them to tell you the numbers. If it’s above 140/90, have it checked again in a week or so. If it’s still raised then talk to your doctor about what to do next.
  2. Get your stress levels under control. Stress is strongly associated with raised blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Click here for 10 tips on how to manage stress.
  3. If you smoke, seriously start thinking about stopping or at least reducing. Smoking causes damage to the lining of the blood vessels, similar to hypertension, making it easier  for atheroma plaques to adhere. Talk to a pharmacist or GP about pharmaceutical options. Consider hypnotherapy or read Alan Carr’s Easy Way.
  4. Get a fasting cholesterol check. Although standard Medicare cholesterol profiles don’t specify between safe (fluffy) and bad (small dense, non-fluffy) LDL, an overall raised LDL level is associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis.
  5. Reduce your salt intake. Salt causes the body to hold onto more fluid which in turn leads to raised blood pressure. The WHO recommends limiting daily salt intake to no more than 5g, just under a teaspoon. 
  6. Cut down on alcohol. Alcohol contributes to raised blood pressure and can cause irregular heart rhythms to develop.
  7. Exercise helps the heart muscle to grow stronger while at the same time being associated with lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  8. Increase your intake of fresh fruit and vegetables. Aim for two servings of fruit and five of vegetables each day. In addition to the beneficial minerals and nutrients in fruit and veg, they also contain fibre which helps to reduce the build up of cholesterol in the coronary arteries.

If you have anything you want to ask, or if there’s a topic you’d like me to write about just let me know.

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