7 May 2020
By Bonnie Munday

Heart disease: How to distinguish the signs and reduce the risks


What exactly is heart disease? What’s the difference between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest? And how can you reduce your risk? Knowing the signs and understanding the risks could save a life of someone in your life. 

Coronary heart disease is Malaysia’s number one killer, with 50 people dying from the health condition daily, according to former Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye. “Deaths from the disease increase every year, and it is the leading cause of ‘sudden death’ (in Malaysia),” he added.

Definition of heart disease 

 Heart disease occurs when the blood supply to part of the heart muscle itself (the myocardium) is severely reduced or stopped. This occurs when one of the coronary arteries (the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle) is blocked by an obstruction, such as a blood clot that has formed on plaque due to atherosclerosis. Such an event is sometimes called a coronary thrombosis or coronary occlusion.

Types of heart disease 

Heart disease includes a long list of conditions. Find out about four common ones and their symptoms here:
Angina - This happens when your heart doesn't get as much blood as it needs because of a blockage of one or more of the heart's arteries. It causes pain in the chest in the form of a squeezing, suffocating or burning feeling. Angina is not a heart attack, it’s a warning signal that you are at an increased risk of a heart attack, cardiac arrest or sudden cardiac death.
Arrhythmia - A diagnosis of arrhythmia means you have an abnormal heart rhythm – either faster (tachycardia) or slower (bradycardia) than the typical 60-80 beats per minute. There are many types of arrhythmias with symptoms varying for each person. Some have no symptoms or warning signs, some are not very serious and others may be life threatening.
Heart attack - Not to be confused with cardiac arrest, a heart attack occurs when the blood supply to the heart is severely reduced or stopped because of a blockage. The narrowing of coronary arteries due to the build-up of plaque (a combination of cholesterol, fatty substances, cellular waste products, calcium and blood-clotting material) causes more than 90% of heart attacks. The length of time the blood supply is cut off will determine the amount of damage done to the heart.
Cardiac arrest - This is not the same thing as a heart attack, though the terms are often used interchangeably and at times, incorrectly. A heart attack is a circulation problem while a cardiac arrest is an “electrical” problem that occurs when the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops functioning. It can be caused by abnormal heart rhythms such as ventricular fibrillation but can also be triggered by a variety of factors including coronary heart disease, a heart attack, congenital heart disease, electrocution or recreational drug use.
Read more about other types of heart disease here.

Heart attack warning signs

Heart attacks are particularly worrying. According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) data from 2017, coronary heart disease deaths in Malaysia reached 30,600, or 22% of total deaths. Not all heart problems come with clear warning signs.
There is not always an alarming chest clutch, followed by a fall to the floor, like you see in movies. Some heart symptoms don’t even happen in your chest and it’s not always easy to tell what’s going on. That’s especially true if you are 60 and older, overweight, have diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure. And the more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to have heart-related problems.
Check out the symptoms that might indicate whether you have a heart problem below:
  • Chest discomfort
  • Nausea, indigestion, heartburn or stomach pain
  • Pain that spreads to the arm
  • Throat or jaw pain
  • Snoring
  • A continuous cough
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Swollen legs
  • Irregular heart beat
To know more, find out the full explanation of the 10 signs from The Star.

Heart attack risk factors and causes

What puts you at risk of a heart attack? According to Heart Foundation of Malaysia, there are 4 major modifiable risk factors:
  • Cigarette/Tobacco smoke
  • High blood cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Physical inactivity
  • Other contributing risk factors are diabetes mellitus and obesity.
The Foundation also strongly urges Malaysians to control their modifiable risk factors such as those with angina to take episodes of chest pain seriously and see their doctor before their atherosclerosis leads to a heart attack.
Ways to prevent heart disease
  • Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and cutting back on foods that offer little nutritional value
  • Exercise regularly, whether it’s a long daily walk or a fitness class three times a week
  • Don't smoke
  • Reduce stress 
  • Talk to your doctor about your risk of heart disease and what you can do to reduce it
To reduce your financial risk in the event a heart disease strike, you can look at taking up a critical illness insurance, which can provide a lump-sum payment to help you in your recovery from specified serious illnesses such as heart attack, cancer and stroke.
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