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Living with heart problems

Treatments for heart problems are improving all the time. t is important to see the GP for a full examination.

Heart disease and cardiovascular disease are terms that cover all the various conditions that can affect the heart and blood vessels, such as abnormal heartbeat, hardening of the arteries (the vessels that carry blood from the heart to the rest of the body), heart failure, stroke, and heart attack.

What can cause heart problems or make them worse?

Some heart conditions, like those caused by birth defects, cannot be prevented, but some are the consequence of an unhealthy lifestyle. So you are at greater risk of developing heart problems if you smoke, don’t exercise enough, drink too much alcohol, eat food rich in salt and fats, are overweight.

If you already have a heart condition, these factors will make it worse. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is, therefore, important whether or not heart problems are present.
Other factors that increase the risk of heart disease include:

  • high blood pressure
  • high blood cholesterol (a type of fat)
  • a family history of heart problems

What are the symptoms of heart problems?

Symptoms vary depending on the type of heart problem. For example, hardening of the arteries, also called coronary heart disease (CHD), is the most common heart problem. It is caused by fat build-up in the arteries, and its main symptom is chest pain, also called angina. This can be mild or severe, and often spreads to the neck, jaws and arms. When it is severe, angina can also indicate a heart attack, and is usually accompanied by other symptoms, like sweating, dizziness, nausea and shortness of breath.
Symptoms of other types of heart problems include:

  • feeling unusually tired
  • palpitations (feeling like your heart is beating too fast or skipping beats)
  • oedema or puffiness, due to liquid retention, especially in legs, ankles and feet
  • shortness of breath at rest
  • passing out

Having these symptoms doesn’t always mean that you have a heart problem, as some indicate other illnesses. It is important to see the GP for a full examination and tests that will help determine what, exactly, makes you feel unwell.

What medical problems can they cause?

Heart problems in general, and coronary heart disease in particular, can lead to potentially fatal complications, such as:

  • heart failure – the inability of the heart to pump enough blood
  • heart attack – the blockage of blood flow to the heart due to a blood clot
  • stroke – the death of brain cells as result of a blood clot, or bleeding
  • aneurysm – a balloon-shaped bulge in an artery, which can burst

How can heart problems make day-to-day life difficult?

Many people have strong emotional reactions when they are diagnosed with a heart problem. Shock, anger, fear, guilt and sadness are fairly common. And if they are recovering from a heart attack or stroke, they will also feel frustrated, if these had an impact on their ability to do things. All these feelings can make the day difficult to get through. They can affect relationships, the ability to carry out everyday life activities, and increase the risk of depression.

What is your first medical port of call?

If you think you are having a heart attack or stroke, call 999 immediately. Remember, the main symptom of a heart attack is severe chest pain. The main symptoms of a stroke are droopy eyes or mouth, inability to raise both arms, and/or slurred speech.

For other heart problems, see the GP. You will undergo tests, such as electrocardiograms, to record your heart’s electrical activity, x-rays and blood tests. These and other tests will help determine whether or not you have a heart problem.

What is the likely treatment?

Treatments for heart problems are improving all the time; the number of deaths from coronary heart disease, for example, has dropped by 40 per cent over the past 10 years.
Treatment is usually a combination of the following:

  • lifestyle changes. Make sure you exercise at least 30 minutes per day. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Cut on fats. Avoid drinking and smoking.
  • medications, such as beta-blockers, which help slow down the heart; aspirin, which prevents blood from clotting; nitrates and calcium channel blockers, which help widen the arteries, and statins, which help reduce blood cholesterol.
  • surgery. This is generally used to open up a blocked artery, or replace the part that is blocked. Heart transplants are performed only in a small number of cases.

How can you make heart problems easier to live with?

Lifestyle changes help reduce your risk of complications and can also improve the quality of your everyday life, making it easier to live with a heart condition. Three more things can help you:
close collaboration with your GP, nurse and healthcare team support from loved ones and friend an active social life, especially if this involves participating in activities with other people with your same condition

What kinds of support is available?

More about the various types of heart conditions and available support can be found at the British Heart Foundation and the NHS Choices website.

Find out more

British Heart Foundation;
How BHF can help
Preventing heart disease

NHS Choices
Healthy Hearts

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