By Aparna Mani, MD, PhD
MGH Medical Walk-In Unit
The heart is an amazing organ. From the time we’re embryos until the day we die our hearts are constantly beating, ticking away at sixty to one hundred beats per minute. The heart is the organ in the human body we most commonly associate with emotions and passions. We can actually feel it beating fast with excitement and slowing down as we rest, sleep and dream. How do we take care of such an important organ? We can best answer this question by taking a close look at what can go wrong with the heart.
The American Heart Association estimates that approximately 600,000 people die of heart disease in the United States each year. What we most often mean when we talk about heart disease is actually coronary heart disease. The heart is a muscular organ and just like any muscle its shape and form directly affect its ability to do its job: pumping blood carrying oxygen and nutrients to every inch of the body. And just like every other organ, the heart muscle needs the right nutrition and care to work properly. It gets its vital nutrients and oxygen not from the blood it holds and pumps out, but from blood that travels in vessels lying along its outer walls (these vessels are called the coronary arteries). If you were to look straight on at the heart, you would see these vessels wrapping like ivy on the heart’s surface.
The coronary arteries need to remain clean so that blood can flow freely through them to nourish the heart muscle. Atherosclerotic plaque, a mixture of cholesterol and other debris which can stick to the walls of the coronary arteries, can interfere with the delivery of nutrients to the heart. In certain spots the lump of sticky plaque can build up to such a degree that it limits or even blocks blood flow through a particular artery. When this happens, the portion of heart muscle that depends on the blood supply from this artery becomes unhealthy, weak, and can even die. But the heart depends on every single muscle fiber to be healthy and strong in order to pump well, so bad blood flow through even a single coronary artery can potentially affect the heart’s important squeezing ability and cause heart disease.
A lot of research has gone into figuring out how to prevent and even get rid of plaque build up in the coronary arteries. Since a major component of plaque is cholesterol, it’s thought that a low cholesterol diet is a key factor for preventing coronary plaque formation. In addition to diet, smoking and high blood pressure can increase the chances of plaque formation. For unclear reasons, people with diabetes seem to be more prone to developing coronary plaque as well.
Health care providers may recommend aspirin, blood pressure, or cholesterol lowering medications for good heart health. Maintaining a healthy diet low in sodium and cholesterol, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, keeping your blood sugar in good control and quitting smoking can also help prevent plaque buildup and resulting heart disease. So take this moment to listen to your heart and talk with your health care provider about taking steps toward beating heart disease.