We rarely hear that heart attacks can kill; we are more likely to hear that a person was brought to the hospital with a heart attack. The doctors placed a stent or two and the person left the hospital two or three days later, fully recovered.
What silent changes occur before a heart attack?
A heart attack does not happen out of nowhere. There can be one or several risk factors present before, like smoking, a lack of exercise, being overweight or obese from eating too much sugar, consuming sugary drinks and eating lots of starchy foods. This will have changed the cholesterol fractions with the bad LDL cholesterol being high and the good HDL cholesterol being low. Triglycerides in this setting are also usually high. The end result is that the lining of the body’s arteries, including the coronary arteries are thickened to the point where blood has a harder time flowing through the opening of the coronary arteries. One day the heart muscle reports severe pain from a lack of oxygen and nutrients. There are essentially three coronary arteries that supply oxygen and nutrients to the heart muscle. For details follow this link.
Often people have 50% to 60% of coronary artery narrowing, but do not know about this. There are tests available that a person could do to check the amount of hardening of the arteries (for instance the IMT test, see below).
What happens after stent placement?
The interventional cardiologist inserts a catheter from a wrist artery or elbow artery backwards through the aorta and from there into each of the openings of the coronary arteries. By injecting a dye X-rays can be made that show the condition of each of the coronary arteries. If a blockage is identified, this can be overcome through angioplasty, where an instrument is used to pierce through the atheromatous deposits and reopen the coronary artery. To prevent re-stenosing, the cardiologist places a wire mesh stent that opens up upon withdrawal of the instrumentation. The end result is that the previously closed off coronary artery is fully functioning again and the stent keeps the previously narrowed coronary artery open. The cardiologist may have to place two or more stents during the same procedure.
A 5-year follow-up study summarized the outcome after stent placements in 1095 patients with 3-vessel coronary artery disease. Percutaneous coronary intervention, a fancy name for saying “angioplasty combined with stent placement” had a 5-year mortality rate of 14.6%, 9.2% heart attack rates and 24.4% reoccurring blockages requiring repeat procedures to reopen the coronary arteries. There were 3% strokes over 5 years demonstrating that not only heart vessels, but also brain vessels were affected by the hardening of the arteries.
What is heart failure?
You may think that the heart would now be entirely back to normal. But this is a gross simplification. The heart functions like a pump, and we know that pumps can fail. In the past when the heart stopped functioning, the person would die. This was the case because there was a complete irreversible closure of one or more coronary arteries. As a result the muscle of one part of the heart, typically involving the left heart chamber would stop functioning. This part of the heart is supplied by the left anterior descending coronary artery. The left heart chamber is the main pump that pushes blood out into the aorta and from there through the whole body. We need the left anterior descending coronary artery to be open and supply nutrients and oxygen to this vital heart pump all the time. When there is a 70% to 80% narrowing of this artery and the heart is not yet failing, there can be life threatening irregular heartbeats, called ventricular fibrillation from a lack of oxygen. This makes the heart muscle contractions no longer effective, as they are no longer synchronized making the heart muscle beat as one unit. This causes acute pump failure and the patients dies. The other possibility is that the patient has a massive heart attack that kills a large portion of the heart muscle off (called myocardial infarction or heart attack). If the patient is not lucky to have immediate access to a hospital with an interventional cardiologist waiting for him or her, even angioplasty and stent placement will not revive the dead portion of the heart muscle and the patient will not survive.
Using a echocardiography the ejection fraction can be determined. This is a measure of how well your heart empties with each heartbeat. Normally it would be between 50 and 70. Below 50 indicates that heart failure is present.
Patients who had a mild heart attack may only have an ejection fraction of 40 and get short-winded with mild activity. Other reasons for mild heart failure can be atrial fibrillation, a common chronic condition in older patients where the atrial chamber is not contracting properly, but fibrillating. Another cause can be inadequate treatment of high blood pressure, so the heart muscle has a hard time keeping up the blood flow against an abnormally high pressure gradient.
Many patients who had a heart attack and were quickly treated with angioplasty and stent insertion have had some minor persistent damage to the heart muscle resulting in abnormal echocardiograms with lowered ejection fractions. In the past without the acute intervention they would likely not have survived. Now due to modern medical technology these patients did survive, but they are left with a mild degree of heart failure, as a certain portion of their heart muscle has died off.
What kills the patient with a heart attack?
As explained above, when the heart muscle no longer is able to function as a pump, the patient dies. This can come from irregular heartbeats, particularly ventricular fibrillation that does not respond to emergency treatment with a defibrillator. This is an electrical device that resets The reason can also be a heart attack that kills a significant part of the heart muscle. Ventricular fibrillation often occurs when not enough oxygen reaches the heart muscle and the special nerves that coordinate that heart muscle fibers to contract as one unit. Regular monitoring of the carotid intimal-medial thickness (IMT) by ultrasound will give a fairly accurate test for coronary artery hardening as the two are closely related.
A patient in danger of getting into trouble can be referred to a cardiologist and angioplasty and stent placement can prevent further deterioration for the time being. It is much safer to do these procedures electively rather than during an emergency when the patient is in distress.
Prevention of heart attacks, any volunteers?
Following the overview above it becomes apparent that prevention to not get heart disease is the best approach with regard to hardening of the arteries. This can be achieved by doing the following:
- You must abandon the Standard American diet. This means no processed food, no refined sugar intake, avoid as much starchy foods as possible. Adopting a Mediterranean diet or a DASH diet is a first step. The DASH diet was developed to help patients with high blood pressure to reduce their blood pressure through the use of this diet. Reducing blood pressure will also reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Avoid excessive alcohol intake (more than two drinks per day for men and more than one drink per day for women) as the toxic effect of alcohol kills heart muscle cells. This in turn leads to heart failure.
- Regular physical exercise will condition your lungs and heart and improve your cardiac output. By having bigger reserves the person becomes more resilient to developing a heart attack.
- Increasing your fiber intake to 30 to 35 grams per day using vegetables and fruit and additional fiber supplements. Common fiber supplements consist of psyllium husk and/or others from the health food store. Take it in the morning with breakfast and with lunch. By avoiding extra fiber at dinnertime you sleep better at night. It turns out that fiber intake is very important to lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides by interfering with the enterohepatic pathway that leads to recirculation of bile salts rich in these fatty substances. The net results are lower LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels and higher HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) levels.
- Take some vitamins and supplements. Vitamin B2, B6, B12 and methyl folate will support methylation pathways. Vitamin D3 in a good dose like 5000 IU per day or more and vitamin K2, 200 micrograms per day will remove calcium out of the arteries and transport it into the bones; this effectively prevents hardening of the arteries and prevents osteoporosis at the same time. Omega-3 supplements (EPA/DHA) are very useful to keep inflammation under control and delay hardening of the arteries; it helps to lower LDL and increase HDL.
- Have your hormones checked. Some doctors do not feel comfortable doing this; maybe you want to see a naturopath about it instead. Your body needs the hormone receptors satisfied by adequate bioidentical hormone levels; otherwise you age prematurely and give up body functions that you would rather keep. Normal hormone levels prevent osteoporosis, premature hardening of the arteries, Alzheimer’s, erectile dysfunction and premature wrinkles. The essential hormones involved in cardiovascular disease prevention are thyroid hormones, sex hormones and in some aging people also human growth hormone.
- Once every 2 years it would be good to measure your heart function as is outlined in this blog.
- There are many more factors that have been identified by researchers to contribute to hardening of the arteries. It is useful to read this and think about which of these factors may apply to your case.
I have explained that hardening of the arteries is the cause of heart attacks. This is caused by a multitude of factors including sugar and processed food overconsumption, smoking, excessive alcohol intake, obesity, undertreated high blood pressure and diabetes. Simply doing angioplasties and placing stents will not stop the process of what led to the heart attack in the first place. Almost 15% died within 5 years following those procedures and 9% got another heart attack. They did not change their diets and stayed inactive. There is another sad aspect about clogging of coronary arteries: the more coronary artery flow we lose through hardening of the coronary arteries, the lower our ejection fraction of the heart as a pump has become. When we reach the point of less than 50% of ejection fraction, we enter disability country with clinical heart failure, forcing us to wear continuous oxygen masks and being unable to exercise or walk. Heart failure is as deadly as terminal cancer having a very high mortality rate.
Concentrate on prevention now, because heart disease remains the number one killer. Remember that we can largely prevent heart disease when we follow the steps mentioned above!
More info about heart attacks: http://nethealthbook.com/cardiovascular-disease/heart-disease/heart-attack-myocardial-infarction-or-mi/