Your heart is a muscle that pumps blood all around your body through your blood vessels, ie, arteries, veins and capillaries. Blood vessels run throughout your entire body including in and around your organs, eg, your heart. The blood takes oxygen to your cells and carbon dioxide out of them.
To understand what can go wrong with your heart, it’s first useful to understand the difference between these three terms:
Cardiovascular disease (CVD): is an umbrella term for all types of diseases that affect your heart or blood vessels. Cardio refers to your heart, vascular to your blood vessels.
Heart disease: this is an umbrella term for conditions that affect how the heart works. The most common type of heart disease is coronary heart disease.
Coronary heart disease (CHD): or coronary artery disease, happens when ‘plaque’, a substance made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances in the blood, build up in your arteries. Plaque can lead to blood clots that block blood vessels, and are the most common cause of a heart attack.
When to have a heart health check
All Māori, Pacific and Indian subcontinent women at age 40.
All women with known cardiovascular risk factors from age 45.
All other ethnicities women with no known risk factors from age 55.
Women with diabetes ‒ once a year from time of diagnosis.
Women who have schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder or other severe mental illness from age 25.
All Māori, Pasifika or South Asian men from age 30.
All men with known risk factors from age 35.
All other ethnicity men with no known risk factors from age 45.
Men with diabetes ‒ once a year from time of diagnosis.
Men with schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder or other severe mental illness from age 25.
Source: Health Navigator
Read more about heart health assessments here.
Symptoms of blood vessel blockages
- chest pain, chest tightness, chest pressure and chest discomfort (angina)
- shortness of breath
- pain, numbness, weakness or coldness in your legs or arms
- pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen or back.
It's important to watch for symptoms and discuss concerns with your doctor.
Disease can sometimes be found early with regular assessments.
Reduce your risk of CVD
CVD can lead to angina (chest pain), heart attacks, strokes and cardiac arrest.
But in many cases CVD can be prevented or treated by having a healthy lifestyle.
Here are some ways to reduce your risk of getting CVD:
- exercise every day
- get your blood pressure under control
- lower your cholesterol levels
- don’t smoke
- manage stress
- control your weight
- eat a healthy diet rich in fruit, vegetables and whole grains, low in salt and sugar
Talk to your doctor about how to get support to do these things.
What is atherosclerosis?
The build-up of plaque is called arteriosclerosis and it causes your arteries to thicken and restrict the flow of blood.
Atherosclerosis can be caused by an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, being overweight and smoking. It can be genetic too, ie, even if you live a healthy lifestyle you still have risk factors.
Read more about CVD risk.
What is angina?
Angina is a type of chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart from coronary artery disease. It’s a serious warning that you need to see your doctor about preventing a heat attack or stroke.
Symptoms of angina
Squeezing, pressure, heaviness, tightness or pain in the chest, which can be sudden and happen often.
What do I do?
Tell your doctor about your symptoms. You will be told about making lifestyle changes and medication and, in severe cases, angioplasty and surgery to prevent heart attack and stroke.
What is a heart attack?
A heart attack can happen when the blood flow to some of your heart is blocked either by the narrowing of your arteries by the build-up of plaque, or a blood clot on the plaque. If the blockage is not fixed quickly the affected part of your heart will die.
Symptoms of heart attack:
- chest pain
- feeling faint
- feeling sick
- being short of breath
What do I do?
If you or someone else is experiencing some of these symptoms, immediately call 111.
What is a cardiac arrest?
A cardiac arrest is when your heart stops beating. It is caused by a sudden loss of blood flow due to your heart not pumping properly. Signs include loss of consciousness and abnormal or no breathing. Most heart attacks do not lead to your heart stopping, but they do increase your risk of having a cardiac arrest.
What do I do?
Fast action is required to help someone having a cardiac arrest. Call 111. See what else to do.
What is a stroke?
A stroke occurs when a blood vessel to the brain is either blocked by plaque or a blood clot or bursts. As a result, the affected part of the brain doesn’t get oxygen and brain cells die.
Strokes are more common as people get older, with 1 in 10 occurring in New Zealanders aged 75 years or older. They can also occur in younger adults. Close to 80% of strokes are preventable, so talk to your doctor about how to reduce your risk of having one, and stick to the lifestyle tips above.
Symptoms of stroke
There are various symptoms of stroke and all occur suddenly ‒ they don’t come on over days or weeks. They can be permanent or take a long time to get better depending on how serious the stroke is:
- numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
- confusion, trouble speaking or difficulty understanding speech
- trouble seeing in one or both eye
- trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or lack of coordination
- severe headache.
What do I do?
Fast action is required to help someone having a stroke. Call 111. See what else to do.
Recovery time is different for everyone; it can take weeks, months or years. Some people recover fully, while others can be left with lifelong disabilities.
Heart health checks at Local Doctors.