Be Still My Heart

A summary of just what a heart attack is, and other related conditions.


For those who follow me on twitter, you will have seen that yesterday I retweeted a link to this New Scientist article. It is an interesting read about how the Tsimane people have incredibly healthy arteries. So I decided to write a post which will hopefully shed some light on four key terms surrounding cardiovascular disorders.

The phrase ‘heart attack’ is a bit of a misleading one. It suggests a violent episode of pain. However, many people can suffer mild heart attacks without even knowing that it has happened. It could just feel like a bout of indigestion.

Imagine a large shopping centre with many shoppers in it. People enter, wander round to various shops and restaurants, then return to the carpark. Now, imagine that an incident occurs on one of the pathways in the shopping centre, a spillage perhaps. All of a sudden, the space shoppers can walk on becomes smaller. More people squeeze closer together in order to get past the obstruction and continue on their way. This is essentially what happens to arteries. Fatty deposits from foods such as butter, lamb and sausages build up in artery walls, meaning that blood has less room to travel through. This has a variety of effects.

Say the spillage in our shopping centre is not that serious, but serious enough for certain shops to not get any customers. They would be temporarily starved of custom. The managers would likely get angry. That’s angina. The temporary deprivation of oxygen to heart muscle. 2 million people in the UK have this condition, and it is managed via a variety of medications.

Back to the shopping centre. The people are all happily moving about the place, browsing at their will. Unfortunately, the lifts break down. This causes a sudden shift in the way the shoppers are moving. It may be virtually unnoticeable, but there is a difference in the rhythm of the people. That is a dysrhythmia (or you may have heard it called an arrhythmia). Minor blockages to arteries can contribute towards an alteration of the way the heart beats.

Now, imagine that the shopping centre management becomes slack over time. They don’t carry out maintenance works. The facilities are in poor condition and it is generally a terrible environment to be in. If inspected, it would be failed. Heart failure is like this. The key thing to note is that heart failure does not mean that the heart has stopped working – there are still some shoppers, and the businesses are functioning. However, the heart itself is weak and struggles to pump enough blood around the body. Perhaps the shopping centre would get financial help from a sponsorship. That would be akin to medical intervention helping a patient with heart failure to rectify their condition.

Remember the spillage from earlier which led to angry shop owners? Think of that, but on a much larger scale. The ceiling falls down in one area of the shopping centre, blocking it from customers. Nobody can get through to the businesses and it is likely that all of the stock will be ruined. The shop managers might attack the shopping centre owners over such an event because their business would potentially be destroyed. This is a heart attack. When a coronary artery is fully blocked and no blood can get through, the heart muscle dies due to lack of oxygen. Heart attacks can be very minor if the blockage is at the end of a small artery. Perhaps only a small portion of ceiling tiles fell down, or there is another pathway round to some shops, so they remain unaffected. Heart attacks are only fatal when a large coronary artery gets blocked, and a lot of heart muscle therefore gets deprived of oxygen.

I want to stress that these are just four key terms regarding cardiovascular disorders. They are by no means all of the heart conditions out there, and I have not even touched upon current clinical methods of dealing with such disorders. But, I hope that you will now understand the difference between these terms, especially the difference between heart failure and heart attack. Sorry if you can never look at a shopping centre in the same way again.

For anyone who is interested, the British Heart Foundation has some interesting statistics here.



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