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Heart Conditions

Finlay Dam
The calm waters upstream from the Finlay Dam in Wellesley/Photo by Douglas Flynn

There are a number of different heart conditions that caregivers may have to become familiar with while caring for their loved ones. Those include:

  • Heart Disease – Also known as cardiovascular disease, the term heart disease covers a number of problems related to the heart. The most common form is coronary heart disease, which occurs when a waxy substance called plaque builds up inside the coronary arteries that supple oxygen-rich blood to the heart. Over time, that plaque can harden and narrow the arteries to reduce the flow of blood to the heart or rupture and form a blood clot to block the blood flow to the heart.
  • Heart Attack – Heart disease can lead to a heart attack, which occurs when the flow of blood to the heart is cut off. Cells in the heart muscle that do not receive enough oxygen-carrying blood begin to die. The more time that passes without treatment to restore the blood flow, the greater the damage to the heart. Heart attacks remain a leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States, but improved treatment techniques have increased survival rates and helped limit damage to the heart.
  • Heart Failure – Coronary heart disease can also lead to a condition called heart failure, which happens when the heart cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to support other organs throughout the body. Heart failure is a serious condition that requires medical care, but it does not mean that the heart has stopped beating. Heart failure can lead to fluid building up in various parts of the body, which is called congestive heart failure. There is no cure for heart failure, but there are treatments to slow the progression and make the patient more comfortable.

What caregivers should know about heart conditions

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, accounting for one in every four deaths with 600,000 dying from the disease each year.
  • Coronary heart disease is the most common form of heart disease, accounting for 385,000 deaths annually.
  • Some 715,000 Americans suffer a heart attack every year. For 525,000 of them, it’s their first heart attack, while 190,000 have suffered previous heart attacks.
  • Heart disease costs the U.S. $108.9 billion each year in health care services, medications and lost productivity.
  • Around 5.7 million people in the United States have heart failure, which is the primary cause of more than 55,000 deaths each year, and was a contributing cause in more than 280,000 deaths (1 in 9) in 2008.
  • About half of people who have heart failure die within 5 years of diagnosis.
  • Early diagnosis and treatment can improve quality of life and life expectancy for people who have heart failure. Treatment usually involves taking medications, reducing salt in the diet, and getting daily physical activity. People with heart failure should also track their daily symptoms and discuss them with their doctors.
  • Common symptoms of heart failure include shortness of breath during daily activities, having trouble breathing when lying down, weight gain with swelling in the legs, ankles, or lower back and general fatigue and weakness.

Warning signs and symptoms of a heart attack

The National Heart Attack Alert Program [PDF] describes the major signs of a heart attack as:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Upper body pain or discomfort in arms, back, neck, jaw or upper stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea, lightheadedness or cold sweats

If you think that you or the person you’re caring for is having a heart attack, call 911 immediately.

What MetroWest caregivers should know

The flag displayed in Marlborough
The flag flying proudly in Marlborough
/Photo by Douglas Flynn

The concentration of medical facilities in the MetroWest region offers patients and their caregivers plenty of options for specialized cardiac care.

The MetroWest Medical Center offers a number of cardiac services, including a cardiac catheterization lab, cardiac care unit, cardiac rehabilitation program and cardiac wellness program. In addition, the Heart Center of MetroWest, which has locations in Framingham, Natick, Marlborough and Medway, has joined in a clinical partnership with the Tufts Medical Center’s CardioVascular Center.

Newton-Wellesley Hospital’s Cardiovascular Health Center offers a cardiac rehabilitation program, nutrition counseling and a congestive heart failure clinic. Marlborough Hospital offers comprehensive services for heart and vascular conditions and is affiliated with UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, while Milford Regional Medical Center offers an interdisciplinary approach to heart health with services including diagnostics, cardiovascular treatment, cardiac rehabilitation and prevention.

Some of the top national facilities are not far from MetroWest either. Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston was ranked fifth nationally in cardiology and heart surgery by U.S. News and World Report in 2013, with Massachusetts General Hospital close behind at No. 7.

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Caregiving MetroWest was made possible in part by grants from the MetroWest Health Foundation.