Heart Disease—An Overview
by Marc A. Nolan, MD
The heart is the life spring for the human body. This downward pear-shaped muscular organ, set behind the breastbone, functions as a specialized pump, delivering oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the cells, tissues, and organs throughout the body, while recirculating deoxygenated, carbon dioxide-infused blood from the body back to the lungs.
With each new beat the right side of the heart pumps carbon dioxide-saturated blood into the lungs. With each inhaled breath, fresh oxygen is exchanged with the carbon dioxide, enriching the blood with life-sustaining oxygen. Each exhaled breath expels carbon dioxide—the toxic by-product of the metabolic processes that our cells and organs continually undergo—and readies the lungs to take in new oxygen. Simultaneously, with each beat the left side of the heart receives from the lungs oxygen-rich blood and pumps it into the circulatory system, delivering oxygen to the body.
With every beat and with each breath the heart miraculously performs this life-sustaining exchange, repeatedly thousands of times a day, barely skipping a beat. When it does miss a beat, it may be the sign of deeper problems that should never be ignored.
Heart disease is a disruption of this miraculous process. The health problems that arise from it can be either immediate and life threatening, or manageable and reversible with therapy or lifestyle changes. The heart is essentially a specialized muscle consisting of four chambers, blood vessels feeding into and out of the chambers, and valves that regulate flow between the chambers and into the circulatory system. Problems can occur in any of these chambers, valves, or blood vessels. Accordingly, there are different types of heart disease. Regardless of the type of disease, it is always a serious problem when the vital pumping function of the heart is affected.
By the time heart problems are detected, the underlying causes may already have reached an advanced state, sometimes having progressed for decades. For example, atherosclerosis of the coronary arteries, the build-up of plaque in the arteries feeding the heart muscles themselves, occurs through a slow cumulative process that ultimately weakens the heart muscle and damages the heart. Because the heart compensates for the decreased blood flow, symptoms of this life-threatening problem may appear only after significant plaque has accumulated and damage has been done. Untreated, atherosclerosis can block the vessels feeding the heart, causing the heart to fail.
Because many heart conditions are manageable, if not avoidable altogether, the practitioners at Patients Medical place an increased emphasis on the prevention of heart disease and developing an approach to modify the risk factors once signs of a problem appear.
Citations and Further Reading:
Department of Health and Human Services / National Institutes of Health / National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. 2009. How the heart works. Anatomy of the heart. URL: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/hhw/hhw_anatomy.html (accessed 04/13/2010).
Department of Health and Human Services / National Institutes of Health / National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. 2009. What is atherosclerosis? URL: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/Atherosclerosis/Atherosclerosis_WhatIs.html (accessed 04/13/2010).
Date of Publication: 09/05/2005
Article Last Updated: 03/27/2014