By: Bryan Hyde
It’s been said that we tend to ignore the things we take for granted until they start to give us problems. For instance, few of us in our daily driving spend even a fraction of a second thinking about the tires on our vehicle. But once we hear unusual thumping or squealing sounds, or the car starts pulling to the left or we experience a flat or--worse still--a blowout, suddenly our tires and their condition are foremost in our minds.
There’s a similar phenomenon that occurs in many of us regarding our cardiovascular health. Day after day, week after week the amazing biological machine that is our heart pumps oxygenated blood through our circulatory system and returns it to our lungs for a fresh supply of oxygen without us giving it a second thought. That is until something begins to go wrong and we find ourselves needing medical help. In fact, according to the Dr. Aarush Manchanda, a full-time cardiologist with IHC’s Valley View Medical Center, for nearly 62% of men and 42% of women, the first real indicator of cardiovascular disease comes in the form of an acute heart attack or sudden death.
The good news is that a little knowledge about cardiovascular health goes a long way toward keeping us healthy and, unlike our car’s tires which must be replaced, we can maintain and strengthen our cardiovascular system at virtually every life stage without having to resort to extreme diets or training to become triathletes.
The human cardiovascular system is a true marvel of nature. It is the means by which our blood circulates throughout the entire body via a network of vessels that supply each individual cell with oxygen and nutrients while simultaneously carrying away our metabolic wastes for disposal. In addition to these essential duties, our heart and blood also perform the critical functions of protecting the body against disease and infection, transports hormones to the correct cells and organs, provides a clotting mechanism to stop bleeding after an injury and helps regulate our body’s temperature.
The human heart is a muscular, 4-chambered hollow organ that beats roughly 100,000 times a day to circulate our blood through nearly 60,000 miles of blood vessels. It performs this function 24/7 without the requirement of conscious thought on our part or the need for rest on our heart’s part. But when problems with the heart or its attendant systems occur, they can quickly become life or death matters.
But not all heart problems are the same. In fact, Dr. Manchanda likens the heart to a home that consists of numerous structures and systems that all affect its well-being. For instance, the walls of a home must be of correct composition and sturdiness if the house is to remain standing. Likewise, if the walls of the heart become too thick or too thin, the heart’s ability to efficiently move blood throughout the circulatory system is compromised and can lead to heart failure.
If a home’s doors & windows should become sticky or fail to open or close properly, they interfere with the flow of traffic into and out of the dwelling and can allow damaging leaks. In a similar way, when the valves of the heart become damaged and fail to open or close properly, become they impede the smooth circulation of blood into and out of the heart. This can cause the heart to work harder than is necessary or it can result in blood leaking backward into the heart and causing a lack of blood for other parts of the body. Such valve diseases can be caused by congenital factors, fevers, infections, Coronary Artery disease, heart attack and a host of other factors.
Like a home, the heart has an electrical system and Dr. Manchanda explains that a short in either one can lead to serious consequences. If we experience too much or too little electrical power in our home, we are subject to flickering lights, damaged appliances, and power outages. But when our heart experiences an electrical problem, it can go into a state of fibrillation where the heart’s muscles contract rapidly and irregularly without the correct synchronization required to move our blood efficiently. Too much electrical impulse in the heart is referred to as Atrial Fibrillation in which the upper portion of the heart’s muscle is merely quivering as opposed to contracting. This is often a chronic condition that can be addressed through medication.
Ventricular Fibrillation, on the other hand, is much more serious and refers to a condition in which the lower chambers of the heart cease to contract properly and circulation stops. This is a life-threatening condition and will lead to death within minutes unless life-saving procedures are initiated. This is where the electric defibrillator we all recognize from television shows comes into play to provide a powerful corrective electrical shock that starts the heart beating again, though not always successfully.
Plumbing blockages are zero fun to deal with as homeowners, but they are far more serious when encountered in the circulatory system as artery disease. Coronary Artery Disease or CAD can take the form of partial or near complete blockages of essential blood vessels that restrict the flow of oxygenated blood to portions of the heart itself. It is a build up of plaque that leads to the narrowing of the artery; a condition called atherosclerosis. Another potentially deadly consequence of this narrowing of the arteries is the increased risk of blood clots. The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute reports that CAD is not only the most common type of heart disease, but it also is the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S.
Other potential plumbing problems that can affect the cardiovascular system include Peripheral Vascular Disease (PVD) also known as aneurysms and Cerebral Vascular Disease (CVD) which we often refer to as a stroke. Factors that contribute to the risk of all of the above diseases include smoking, cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30+ and age.
If, at this point, you find yourself feeling a bit too keenly aware of your own heartbeat, relax because there is plenty of good news regarding heart health.
Medicine has made amazing advances in diagnosing and treating cardiovascular disease. When your cardiologist needs to check the thickness of the walls of the heart, the Echocardiogram does just that. Electrical problems in the heart can be quickly diagnosed thanks to the Electrocardiogram or EKG. And when plumbing blockages or valve problems are suspected, your cardiologist can utilize stress testing, non-invasive Computed Tomography or CT Angiography, or the heart CT scan to pinpoint the trouble areas.
The images produced by this CT technology are created by combining multiple x-ray images to produce incredibly vivid cross-sectional views within the body.
Another bright note is that each of the risk factors that contribute to the risk of CVD can be managed--including many of the effects of aging. Of course, the price for better health has always included a proactive approach that includes acquiring knowledge of common CVD symptoms and not simply waiting around for something to go wrong.
For peace of mind concerning heart health, Dr. Manchanda recommends annual physicals including screening for lipids, blood pressure and sugars especially for those over age 40. He also suggests a regimen of regular aerobic exercise of no less than 20 minutes a day at least three days a week. A good gauge of the proper intensity of this exercise is whether or not you’re breaking a light sweat. If you are, then you’re good to go. Now the real challenge is to get that exercise consistently until it becomes a habit.
Finally, Dr. Manchanda advises a diet that’s rich in vitamins and minerals, that balances carbs and proteins, contains plenty of roughage and limits calories and saturated fats. Heart smart recipes and cookbooks abound and with minimal effort you’ll soon find that a healthier diet doesn’t require dining on mung bean compote 3 meals a day.
Mechanics have long understood that preventative maintenance and even a rudimentary awareness of how our vehicle’s essential systems work can go a long way toward extending a vehicle’s road life. The same idea applies to our individual health. But by getting started right now, a few minor lifestyle adjustments can pay huge dividends in overall cardiovascular health for years to come.