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Cardiology FAQs

Do you have questions about treatment options? Symptoms? Risk factors? Let us answer your questions in simple, understandable terms.

What is a heart attack?

The heart is a four-chamber organ that pumps oxygen and blood to all the other organs and muscles in the body. The heart needs its own oxygen and blood supply to perform this demanding job. Coronary arteries feed the heart muscle its oxygen and blood supply. Plaque deposits, usually made of cholesterol, fats, fibrous tissue and white blood cells, can develop on the wall of these coronary arteries. These plaque deposits can become unstable and rupture due to high-blood pressure, smoking and a high-cholesterol, high-fat diet. When the plaque deposits crack or rupture, white blood cells and fat leak into the blood stream forming a clot. Because the blood clot stops blood flow through the artery, the heart muscle is deprived of oxygen and blood. After 20 minutes of no blood flow to a certain area of heart muscle, that area of muscle dies. This is called a heart attack or myocardial infarction.

What is a stroke?

A stroke is an injury to the brain that may also severely affect the body. A stroke happens when blood supply to part of the brain is cut off or when there is bleeding into or around the brain. This can happen if a blood clot blocks an artery in the brain or neck or if a weakened artery bursts in the brain. Risk factors for stroke include high-blood pressure, smoking, heart disease, diabetes and a high red blood cell count. The risk of stroke also increases with age. Heavy alcohol use increases your risk of bleeding (hemorrhagic) strokes. The warning signs for a possible stroke may include a sudden, temporary weakness or numbness in your face or in your arm or leg; trouble talking or understanding others who are talking; temporary loss of eyesight, especially in one eye; double vision; unexplained headaches or a change in headache pattern and temporary dizziness or staggering when walking.

What is carotid artery disease?

Carotid artery disease is a form of disease that affects the vessels leading to the head and brain. Like the heart, the brain's cells need a constant supply of oxygen-rich blood. This blood supply is delivered to the brain by the two large arteries in the front of your neck. If these arteries become clogged or blocked, you can have a stroke. Carotid artery disease is usually caused by atherosclerosis, which is a hardening and narrowing of the arteries. As we age, fat deposits, cholesterol, calcium and other materials build up on the inner walls of the arteries. This build-up forms a wax-like substance called plaque. As the plaque builds up, the arteries become narrower, and the flow of blood through the arteries becomes slower. Lifestyle changes, medicines or surgery can be used to treat carotid artery disease and lower your risk of a stroke.

What is congestive heart failure?

Heart failure means your heart is not pumping as well as it should to deliver oxygen-rich blood to your body's cells. Congestive heart failure (CHF) happens when the heart's weak pumping action causes a buildup of fluid (called congestion) in your lungs and other body tissues. CHF usually develops slowly. You may go for years without symptoms and the symptoms tend to get worse with time. This slow onset and progression of CHF is caused by your heart's own efforts to deal with its gradual weakening. Your heart tries to make up for this weakening by enlarging and by forcing itself to pump faster to move more blood through your body. Many therapies can help to ease the workload of your heart. Treatment options include lifestyle changes, medicines and surgery.

What is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is a condition where a waxy substance forms inside the arteries that supply blood to your heart. This substance, called plaque, is made of cholesterol, fatty compounds, calcium and fibrin (a blood-clotting material). Scientists think atherosclerosis begins when the very inner lining of the artery is damaged. High-blood pressure, high levels of cholesterol, fat and triglycerides in the blood and smoking are believed to lead to the development of plaque. Atherosclerosis may continue for years without causing symptoms.

What is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is a fast, irregular rhythm where single muscle fibers in your heart's upper chambers twitch or contract. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), atrial fibrillation is a major cause of stroke, especially among older people. This irregular rhythm may cause blood to pool in the heart's upper chambers. The pooled blood can lead to clumps of blood called blood clots. A stroke can occur if a blood clot travels from the heart and blocks a smaller artery in the brain.

What is cholesterol and why is it so important?

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance (lipid) found in all body cells. Your liver makes all of the cholesterol your body needs to form cell membranes and make certain hormones. Extra cholesterol enters your body when you eat foods that come from animals (meats, eggs and dairy products). Although we often blame the cholesterol found in foods that we eat for raising blood cholesterol, the main culprit is saturated fat, which is also found in our food. So, we should limit foods high in cholesterol or saturated fat. Foods rich in saturated fat include butter, fat from red meat and tropical oils such as coconut oil. Cholesterol travels to cells through the bloodstream in special carriers called lipoproteins. Two of the most important lipoproteins are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Doctors look at how LDL and HDL relate to each other and to total cholesterol. LDL particles deliver cholesterol to your cells. LDL cholesterol is often called "bad cholesterol" because high levels are thought to lead to the development of heart disease. Too much LDL in the blood causes plaque to form on artery walls, which starts a disease process called atherosclerosis. When plaque builds up in the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart, you are at greater risk for having a heart attack. HDL particles carry cholesterol from your cells back to your liver, where it can be eliminated from your body. HDL is known as "good cholesterol" because high levels are thought to lower your risk for heart disease.

What are triglycerides?

Triglycerides are fats that provide energy for your muscles. Like cholesterol, they are delivered to your body's cells by lipoproteins in the blood. If you eat foods with a lot of saturated fat or carbohydrates, you will raise your triglyceride levels. Elevated levels are thought to lead to a greater risk for heart disease, but scientists do not agree that high triglycerides alone are a risk factor for heart disease. Although triglycerides serve as a source of energy for your body, very high levels can lead to diabetes, pancreatitis, and chronic kidney disease. As triglyceride levels rise, HDL levels fall, which may help explain why people with high triglycerides appear to have an increased risk for heart disease.

What is cardiac catheterization?

Cardiac catheterization is the method doctors use to perform many tests available for diagnosing and for treating coronary artery disease. Cardiac catheterization is used with other tests such as angiography and electrophysiology studies (EPS). The method involves threading a long, thin tube (called a catheter) through an artery or vein in the leg or arm and into the heart. Depending on the type of test your doctor has ordered, different things may happen during cardiac catheterization. For example, a dye may be injected through the catheter to see the heart and its arteries (a test called angiography), or electrical impulses may be sent through the catheter to study irregular heartbeats (tests called electrophysiology studies).

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