The leading cause of death in America, cardiovascular heart disease encompasses several distinct conditions of the heart (cardio) and blood vessels (vascular). The heart is the most important organ of the body, pumping blood and oxygen-rich nutrients to the brain, lungs, and throughout the circulatory system. Similar to an engine that drives a car, this vital organ is a fist-sized, complex creation of valves and chambers which open and close to allow blood to ebb and flow with each beat. From just six weeks after conception, the organ plays a crucial role in supporting life. But cardiovascular heart disease can happen at any stage in development, depending on genetic and environmental factors. Conditions such as congenital defects, arrythmias, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), or inflammation can contribute to eventual failure or attacks. “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).
While congenital disorders develop within the womb, cardiovascular heart disease may not be detected until babies are a year old. Infants may experience difficulty breathing due to the organ’s inability to pump efficiently, or abnormal valve openings may create too much pressure and blood flowing to the lungs. Babies born with malformations which prevent oxygen from reaching the lungs may become blue in the face under stress, a term called “cyanosis.” Cyanotic infants, or “blue babies,” require surgery or heart catherization to repair arterial blockages, abnormal openings, or tears in valves. Murmurs, blockages and damage to arteries and ventricles may occur in fetuses of mothers that have been susceptible to viruses, genetic defects and malformations, or toxicity, or those who have habitually abused drugs, tobacco, or alcohol. Infants born with coronary defects may require additional surgery after organs mature, usually at the age of five or six. Until maturity, babies will be monitored by pediatricians and cardiologist and placed on medication to control symptoms. Some conditions heal without surgery as children develop physically under a doctor’s care.
Congenital cardiovascular heart disease can plague children and teens in later years; and surgery may offer the only cure for infants born with malformations and dysfunctional organs. Infants and adults are susceptible to arrythmias, which are irregular or abnormal beats. A healthy heart beats from 60 to 100 times per minute; however an abnormally slow or fast rhythm indicates a potential problem. Patients that suffer from congestive heart failure may have faster beats as the organ struggles to pump blood to the lungs. Slower beats could indicate blockages or genetic defects. Most people with mild arrythmias can live normally and the condition does not require prolonged care or medication. Severe cases may require surgery; and x-rays and an electrocardiogram will detect the cause of abnormal beats or misfired electrical impulses from the organ. Individuals may suffer from cardiomyopathy, a condition which causes enlargement, thickening or hardening of muscle tissue. Enlargement or hardening may disrupt the heart’s ability to pump blood efficiently. The lack of oxygen-rich blood can lead to other problems in the circulatory system, such as numbness in the hands and feet.
A prevalent cardiovascular heart disease is atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Responsible for more than 25% of the annual mortality rate in the United States, atherosclerosis is a buildup of plaque, fatty deposits which adhere to arterial walls. Much like plumbing that gets clogged and stops the flow of water in a kitchen sink, plaque buildup clogs the flow of blood through major arteries and veins; and the results in the human body can be devastating. Not only does the disease cause coronary attacks, but it is a major factor in strokes and is responsible for the development of peripheral arterial disease (PAD) in over 8 million Americans. Stroke victims suffer from blockages which disrupt blood flow through the carotid arteries to the brain, and victims of PAD may develop blood clots which can travel to the lungs, causing pulmonary embolism or instant death. Other conditions caused by hardening of the arteries are abdominal aneurysms, a bulging of the arterial wall inside the stomach which can erupt, causing hemorrhaging and death; and in men, erectile dysfunction.
How does plaque build up in the arteries? Plaque can accumulate through a natural process of aging, spurred on by a high-cholesterol, high-fat diet. Teens that regularly consume double cheeseburgers and fries have no idea that eating fast foods could be a one-way ticket to cardiovascular heart disease in the adult years. Cardiologists stress a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet and regular exercise to help prevent plaque buildup and cardiovascular heart disease. Individuals who experience symptoms of failure, congestion, arrythmias, or atherosclerosis should seek the advice of a medical doctor. Blood tests, x-rays, and electrocardiograms can determine the source and location of blockages, malformations, or abnormal valve openings. Difficulty breathing or exhaustion upon exertion or resting, numbness in the hands or feet, disorientation or mental confusion, an abnormally rapid or slow heart beat, or swelling in the legs may all be indications of cardiovascular disease.
Individuals should also be aware of the symptoms of coronary failure or attack, some of which may be difficult to detect. Males may experience crushing chest pain, profuse perspiration, nausea, and tightness in the left arm. Females may also experience chest pain, but possibly less severe than males. Symptoms for women can include pain along the jawline, perspiration, nausea, and pressure in the center of the chest. Cardiovascular heart disease, such as atherosclerosis, leading to strokes may cause symptoms such as blurred vision, disorientation, weakness on one side of the body, facial contortion, and slurred speech. Individuals experiencing signs of stroke or coronary attack should dial 911 and get help as soon as possible. In the event of an attack or stroke, time is of the essence; and even if victims are unsure of symptoms, it is best to be safe rather than sorry.