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The warning signs of heart disease at any age

Frieda Paton

Cardiovascular disease is one of the major causes of death in South Africa and while we tend to associate it with the elderly, more than half of these deaths are in people aged 35-64. However, if you pay attention to the early warning signs of heart disease you might be able to avoid disability or death.

The heart is the strongest muscle in the body and it keeps beating on average 80 times a minute as long as we are alive. The one side of the heart pumps blood to the lungs to become oxygenated and from there the blood returns to the other side of the heart and is pumped to every part of the body to supply oxygen, nutrients and other chemicals to every cell. The heart muscle has its own electrical node to keep it beating and four valves ensure that the blood flows in the right direction.

Heart disease is a general term which refers to any condition which affects the function of the heart. The most well-known condition, and also the one that occurs most often, is a myocardial infarction, commonly referred to a heart attack. Here a blood vessel which supplies part of the heart muscle becomes blocked – the heart muscle no longer receives oxygen and becomes unable to function.

There are however many other heart diseases, including those that affect the rhythm of the heart, the heart muscle, or the heart valves.  Some of these are inborn defects while others can be the result of infections or other conditions such as hypertension.

Because the heart supplies oxygen for energy to the whole body there are common symptoms which could indicate that someone might be suffering from heart disease. These include chest pain, unusual shortness of breath on exertion or at rest, tiring easily, and heart palpitations.  These symptoms are often combined with other signs such as a very rapid or a very slow pulse; irregular heartbeats; swelling of the feet, ankles and legs; light-headedness, dizziness and fainting; also, a grey or bluish tinge to the skin, especially around the mouth.

These initial signs of a heart condition are frequently ignored or missed. This may cause unnecessary limitation of activities, for example when a child has a leaking heart valve and never takes part in sport because they just get too tired. In other cases where heart disease is left undiagnosed and untreated, it could cause premature disability and even death.

World Heart Day, created by the World Heart Federation, is on September 29.  It is a good time to ask yourself whether you or a loved one is experiencing any of the symptoms discussed above and if so, to make an appointment to visit your health care provider for a proper physical examination before it is too late. Also remember that many types of heart disease can be prevented and treated with healthy lifestyle choices which include a healthy diet, regular exercise, quitting smoking, and managing stress.

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