Have a heart for your health
Less than six inches long, your heart works tirelessly day and night, pumping blood round your body to keep your organs supplied with vital oxygen. It contracts about 100,000 times every day - so it's not surprising that just sometimes, it runs out of juice.
We're learning more every year about what keeps your heart ticking, and these days your GP will be keeping a careful eye on your risk of heart attack and cholesterol levels if you're over 40. Raised blood pressure and cholesterol don't cause any symptoms in the short term, but they're major risk factors for all the heart problems we're talking about today. So it's essential to get your blood pressure and cholesterol checked at least once when you reach 40, then as often as your GP advises. If you're on blood pressure or cholesterol-lowering medication, do try to take it regularly - ask your pharmacist for a 'dosset box' if it makes it easier to remember to take your medication - and go back for regular checks. Your heart deserves it!
Angina causes similar, but usually less severe, symptoms to those of a heart attack, and means you're at higher risk of a heart attack in future. Treatment is less urgent but broadly similar.
The term sounds terrifying, but 'heart failure' just means that your heart isn't pumping blood round your body effectively enough to stop fluid building up. It gets much more common with age - about one in 15 of those aged 75-85 and one in seven of those aged over 85 are affected - but the symptoms can usually be effectively treated with tablets. There are several underlying causes, including heart attack, high blood pressure or atrial fibrillation.
The excess fluid can build up in your legs, causing swollen ankles, or in your lungs, with shortness of breath, which may be worse if you try to lie flat and sometimes a cough. You can also get tiredness, dizziness and loss of appetite.
If your doctor suspects heart failure they'll refer you to a hospital heart specialist. The mainstay of treatment is water tablets (diuretics) to remove the excess fluid and treat the symptoms, but you'll also be given other tablets to cut the chance of symptoms returning.
The most common abnormal heart rhythm in the UK, atrial fibrillation, or AF affects about 1.2 million people in the UK and rising. Like heart failure, it gets more common with age. It can cause palpitations (your heart rate becoming very fast and irregular), and sometimes shortness of breath, dizziness or chest pains. But some people don't know they have it until they have their pulse checked.
Perhaps the most important complication of AF is stroke - fortunately, regular treatment with blood-thinning agents like warfarin (aspirin is no longer recommended) cut this risk dramatically.
We all know the 'classic' signs of a heart attack - central crushing chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness. But women are less likely than men to feel severe chest pain, and more likely to have back pain, feeling sick and/or severe tiredness. It's crucial to dial 999 if you think you're having a heart attack - new treatments have dramatically improved survival rates for heart attack, but they need to be given fast. Depending on the kind of heart attack you've had and how quickly you arrive, you may be offered emergency surgery or 'clot-busting' drugs to reopen the artery that has become blocked.
How can I help myself?
Whether it's angina, heart attack, heart failure or AF, the risk factors - and the advice - are largely the same.
Discover a diet that's heart-healthy: the Mediterranean diet - rich in a rainbow of fruit and veg, low in refined carbohydrates (including sugary and processed foods) and red meat, high in wholegrain or wholemeal foods, nuts and fish - has consistently been proved to protect your heart.
Best foot forward: regular 'aerobic' exercise (the kind that makes you mildly out of puff) works wonders for your heart health. If you've had a heart attack, you should be offered 'cardiac rehabilitation' to help you.
Stub it out for good: you know what I'm talking about! Stopping smoking is the single best thing you can do for your heart - speak to your doctor about getting support.
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.