Among the rising tide of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), cardiovascular or heart disease is among the most common. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 27% of all the deaths attributed to NCDs were due to heart disease. In the 40-69 years age group, heart disease is responsible for 45% of deaths. This shows how important it is to tackle the menace of heart disease and dispelling the various myths so the heart disease can be prevented, treated and managed in the correct manner.
Fact: Heart diseases include all conditions that affect the structure or function of the heart. The common ones amongst these are Coronary Artery Disease (narrowing of the arteries), Abnormal Heart Rhythms, or Cardiac Arrhythmias, Heart Failure or Congestive heart failure, and heart valve diseases.
Fact: Many people also confuse a heart attack with cardiac arrest. A heart attack is a circulatory problem that takes place when a coronary artery becomes blocked. Because of the blockage, the heart muscle can’t get oxygen and begins to die. A cardiac arrest is a circulatory problem that occurs when the heart stops pumping blood due to any reason and normal breathing stops. A cardiac arrest can take place because of a heart attack leading to a dangerous heart rhythm. Both are emergencies and require immediate medical intervention.
Fact: While it is true that the risk of heart disease is more in older people, it is far from rare in the younger age group of 30 to 40 years. Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) occurs at a younger age in Indians, with over 50% of CAD mortality occurring in individuals aged less than 50 years. Indians get a heart attack a decade earlier in their lives as compared to other ethnic groups. Heart attacks have a prevalence of as high as 25 to 40% in patients below 40 years of age
According to the Indian Heart Association, 50% of all heart attacks in Indian men occur under the age of 50 and 25% of all heart attacks in Indian men under the age of 40. Factors that make Indians more vulnerable to heart attacks at a younger age include dyslipidemia (abnormal amount of fat in the blood) with an inherent insulin resistance that leads to early onset of diabetes and genetic causes such as familial hypercholesterolemia.
Fact: Women today suffer from heart attacks and heart blockages and present with the same symptoms of heart disease as men do. The major factors responsible for the increasing incidence of heart disease in women is the dramatic shift in lifestyle in the modern woman with pressures of career and family, giving them less time to take care of their health with the added burden of unhealthy eating and lifestyle habits. This leads to women falling prey to the same risk factors as men. More and more women are developing hypertension with heart disease as a result.
A significant percentage of those who die suddenly of heart disease had no previous symptoms. There are two reasons. The first because symptoms can vary greatly and be misunderstood. Movies have led us to believe that the sign of a heart attack is extreme pain in the chest. But other symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, back or jaw pain, dizziness or fainting, pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen and extreme fatigue can also be symptoms that should not be ignored. The second reason is that heart disease can be silent with no symptoms. High blood pressure can have no symptoms but increase risk of heart failure and stroke. Plaque build-up in the coronary arteries may not cause any symptoms till it accumulates over time and narrows the arteries restricting blood flow significantly.
Angioplasty and bypass surgery treat the immediate problem but you need to also address the factors that led to the problem. These include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, lifestyle factors such as an unhealthy diet, smoking, or lack of exercise and obesity. Without these factors being taken care of, the arteries will continue to become blocked with a fatty plaque with the risk of angina recurring or even a heart attack or stroke.
A lack of physical activity or a sedentary lifestyle is not advisable, either before or after a diagnosis of heart disease. Being sedentary can lead to a decline in the physical condition and also increase the risk of the formation of blood clots in the legs. In fact, exercise under the guidance of a professional helps to strengthen the heart muscle and improve blood flow around the body. A note of caution is that people who have been inactive or patients with advanced heart disease should consult a doctor before taking up any strenuous physical activity.
While a family history does indicate an increased risk of developing heart disease, you can reduce the risk by taking appropriate preventive steps including following a healthy diet, stopping smoking and chewing tobacco, managing blood pressure through proper medication, and living a fit lifestyle with regular exercise. A point to note is that even if heart disease runs in the family, it may not be because of a genetic susceptibility, but rather shared lifestyle factors that are common among the members such as an unhealthy diet and exercise habits.
We hope that this debunking of eight common myths around heart diseases arm you with the information you need to follow the path to health.