World Heart Day, September 29, 2017, has your heart health in mind. The human heart is the hardest working organ in the body, pumping 72 times per minute circulate the blood through the body. Our pumping blood moves oxygen, glucose, and nutrients through the arteries, veins and capillaries to the organs, and then moves waste products like carbon dioxide and other toxins in reverse for disposal. Over the average lifetime, the heart moves more than 250,000 gallons of blood around in a circle. A poorly functioning heart can cause problems everywhere else in the body. In the United States, one in every four deaths is caused by heart disease, and coronary heart disease is responsible for more than half of those deaths. Someone has a heart attack in America every 40 seconds, and every minute, heart-related conditions kill another person. Both women and men over 65 succumb to diseases of the heart more than any other type of illness, and two-thirds of these deaths occur over age 75. Caregivers, home care aides and loved ones need to know the signs, risk factors and the strategies that prevent heart disease.

There are two main kinds of heart disease: coronary heart disease (CHD), sometimes called coronary artery disease, which accounts for more than half of all heart-related deaths each year, and cardiovascular disease (CVD). Coronary heart disease results from a build-up of plaque in the arteries of the heart, called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis reduces the amount of oxygen the heart receives from the blood flowing through it, and reduces the overall flow of blood through the heart. The plaque can cause the arteries to harden and narrow, or the plaque can break off in pieces, creating a blood clot that can block the flow of blood entirely. When the blood flow through the heart declines, the result is either a heart attack (myocardial infarction) or angina, which cuts off the flow through the heart muscle entirely. If blood doesn’t flow through the heart muscle for long enough, the deprived muscle tissue starts to die, with permanent and often fatal consequences. Eventual heart failure or arrhythmia are common aftermaths of heart attacks. If atherosclerosis is noticed early enough, an angioplasty can clear out the plaque and widen the arteries to their original capacity. If after a heart attack or angina episode, the arteries have burst, bypass surgery can graft new veins into the heart from elsewhere in the body to carry blood through the muscle. Cardiovascular disease refers to the several other conditions that result from impaired function of the heart or blood vessels in the body. These other conditions include: stroke, hypertension, aortic aneurysms, pulmonary heart disease, cardiomyopathy, carditis, congenital heart disease, and several other diseases of the vascular system. The common aspect they all share is impairment or blockage of the blood flow through the heart and the circulatory system, and the negative effects a lack of blood and thus oxygen have on the other organs of the body. All these conditions combined are the leading cause of death in the world.

Next week, in Seniors and Heart Disease Part II, we’ll discuss the ways that aging affects the body in ways that raise the risk of heart disease, and what caregivers, home care aides and loved ones can do about it.