Atherosclerosis, Arteriosclerosis, & Coronary Artery Disease
Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. It occurs when the buildup of plaque—a fatty material including cholesterol, connective tissue, white blood cells, and some smooth muscle cells—within the walls of the arteries obstructs the flow of blood and decreases the flexibility or compliance of the vessels. This condition is called atherosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries that involves the accumulation of plaque. In advanced cases, atherosclerotic plaques can become hardened by the deposition of calcium, and fibrous tissue may proliferate in the arterial walls. This leads to a condition known as arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. As the coronary blood vessels become occluded, the flow of blood to the tissues will be restricted, a condition called ischemia that causes the cells to receive insufficient amounts of oxygen, called hypoxia. The image below shows the blockage of coronary arteries highlighted by the injection of dye. Some individuals with coronary artery disease report pain radiating from the chest called angina pectoris, but others remain asymptomatic. If untreated, coronary artery disease can lead to MI or a heart attack.
The disease progresses slowly and often begins in children and can be seen as fatty “streaks” in the vessels. It then gradually progresses throughout life. Well-documented risk factors include smoking, family history, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, high alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, stress, and hyperlipidemia or high circulating levels of lipids in the blood. Treatments may include medication, changes to diet and exercise, angioplasty with a balloon catheter, insertion of a stent, or coronary bypass procedure.
Angioplasty is a procedure in which the occlusion is mechanically widened with a balloon. A specialized catheter with an expandable tip is inserted into a superficial vessel, normally in the leg, and then directed to the site of the occlusion. At this point, the balloon is inflated to compress the plaque material and to open the vessel to increase blood flow. Then, the balloon is deflated and retracted. A stent consisting of a specialized mesh is typically inserted at the site of occlusion to reinforce the weakened and damaged walls. Stent insertions have been routine in cardiology for more than 40 years.
Coronary bypass surgery may also be performed. This surgical procedure grafts a replacement vessel obtained from another, less vital portion of the body to bypass the occluded area. This procedure is clearly effective in treating patients experiencing a MI, but overall does not increase longevity. Nor does it seem advisable in patients with stable although diminished cardiac capacity since frequently loss of mental acuity occurs following the procedure. Long-term changes to behavior, emphasizing diet and exercise plus a medicine regime tailored to lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and lipids, and reduce clotting are equally as effective.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a potentially serious because it can contribute to heart attack, heart failure, kidney damage, or rupture blood vessels. In general systolic arterial blood pressures above 170 mm Hg and diastolic pressure above 90 mm Hg are considered hypertensive. While hypertension is not restricted to older person, the incidences tend to increase with age.
Myocardial infarction (MI) is the formal term for what is commonly referred to as a heart attack. It normally results from a lack of blood flow (ischemia) and oxygen (hypoxia) to a region of the heart, resulting in death of the cardiac muscle cells. An MI often occurs when a coronary artery is blocked by the buildup of atherosclerotic plaque consisting of lipids, cholesterol and fatty acids, and white blood cells, primarily macrophages. It can also occur when a portion of an unstable atherosclerotic plaque travels through the coronary arterial system and lodges in one of the smaller vessels. The resulting blockage restricts the flow of blood and oxygen to the myocardium and causes death of the tissue. MIs may be triggered by excessive exercise, in which the partially occluded artery is no longer able to pump sufficient quantities of blood, or severe stress, which may induce spasm of the smooth muscle in the walls of the vessel.
In the case of acute MI, there is often sudden pain beneath the sternum (retrosternal pain) called angina pectoris, often radiating down the left arm in males but not in female patients. Until this anomaly between the sexes was discovered, many female patients suffering MIs were misdiagnosed and sent home. In addition, patients typically present with difficulty breathing and shortness of breath (dyspnea), irregular heartbeat (palpations), nausea and vomiting, sweating (diaphoresis), anxiety, and fainting (syncope), although not all of these symptoms may be present. Many of the symptoms are shared with other medical conditions, including anxiety attacks and simple indigestion, so differential diagnosis is critical. It is estimated that between 22 and 64 percent of MIs present without any symptoms.
An MI can be confirmed by examining the patient’s ECG, which frequently reveals alterations in the ST and Q components. Some classification schemes of MI are referred to as ST-elevated MI (STEMI) and non-elevated MI (non-STEMI). In addition, echocardiography or cardiac magnetic resonance imaging may be employed. Common blood tests indicating an MI include elevated levels of creatine kinase MB (an enzyme that catalyzes the conversion of creatine to phosphocreatine, consuming ATP) and cardiac troponin (the regulatory protein for muscle contraction), both of which are released by damaged cardiac muscle cells.
Immediate treatments for MI are essential and include administering supplemental oxygen, aspirin that helps to break up clots, and nitroglycerine administered sublingually (under the tongue) to facilitate its absorption. Despite its unquestioned success in treatments and use since the 1880s, the mechanism of nitroglycerine is still incompletely understood but is believed to involve the release of nitric oxide, a known vasodilator, and endothelium-derived releasing factor, which also relaxes the smooth muscle in the tunica media of coronary vessels. Longer-term treatments include injections of thrombolytic agents such as streptokinase that dissolve the clot, the anticoagulant heparin, balloon angioplasty and stents to open blocked vessels, and bypass surgery to allow blood to pass around the site of blockage. If the damage is extensive, coronary replacement with a donor heart or coronary assist device, a sophisticated mechanical device that supplements the pumping activity of the heart, may be employed. Despite the attention, development of artificial hearts to augment the severely limited supply of heart donors has proven less than satisfactory but will likely improve in the future.
MIs may trigger cardiac arrest, but the two are not synonymous. Important risk factors for MI include cardiovascular disease, age, smoking, high blood levels of the low-density lipoprotein (LDL, often referred to as “bad” cholesterol), low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good” cholesterol), hypertension, diabetes mellitus, obesity, lack of physical exercise, chronic kidney disease, excessive alcohol consumption, and use of illegal drugs.
The supply of blood to the brain is crucial to its ability to perform many functions. Without a steady supply of oxygen, and to a lesser extent glucose, the nervous tissue in the brain cannot keep up its extensive electrical activity. These nutrients get into the brain through the blood, and if blood flow is interrupted, neurological function is compromised. The common name for a disruption of blood supply to the brain is a stroke. It is caused by a blockage to an artery in the brain. The blockage is from some type of embolus: a blood clot, a fat embolus, or an air bubble. When the blood cannot travel through the artery, the surrounding tissue that is deprived starves and dies. Strokes will often result in the loss of very specific functions. A stroke in the lateral medulla, for example, can cause a loss in the ability to swallow. Sometimes, seemingly unrelated functions will be lost because they are dependent on structures in the same region. Along with the swallowing in the previous example, a stroke in that region could affect sensory functions from the face or extremities because important white matter pathways also pass through the lateral medulla. Loss of blood flow to specific regions of the cortex can lead to the loss of specific higher functions, from the ability to recognize faces to the ability to move a particular region of the body. Severe or limited memory loss can be the result of a temporal lobe stroke. Related to strokes are transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), which can also be called “mini-strokes.” These are events in which a physical blockage may be temporary, cutting off the blood supply and oxygen to a region, but not to the extent that it causes cell death in that region. While the neurons in that area are recovering from the event, neurological function may be lost. Function can return if the area is able to recover from the event. Recovery from a stroke (or TIA) is strongly dependent on the speed of treatment. Often, the person who is present and notices something is wrong must then make a decision. The mnemonic FAST helps people remember what to look for when someone is dealing with sudden losses of neurological function. If someone complains of feeling “funny,” check these things quickly: Look at the person’s face. Does he or she have problems moving Face muscles and making regular facial expressions? Ask the person to raise his or her Arms above the head. Can the person lift one arm but not the other? Has the person’s Speech changed? Is he or she slurring words or having trouble saying things? If any of these things have happened, then it is Time to call for help. Sometimes, treatment with blood-thinning drugs can alleviate the problem, and recovery is possible. If the tissue is damaged, the amazing thing about the nervous system is that it is adaptable. With physical, occupational, and speech therapy, victims of strokes can recover, or more accurately relearn, functions.
Angina pectoris refers to short episodes of cardiac pain that result from progressive constriction of the coronary arteries. The pain appears whenever the heart is called upon to contract more strenuously than can be supported by the restricted coronary blood flow. Incidents of angina actually reduce with age, most likely due to decreases in exercise.
Irregular beats that occur outside the normal sequence are referred to as cardiac arrhythmias. Arrhythmias may occur at an age but are more common in older persons. Arrhythmias may result from extra systoles, when an atrium or ventricle contracts more often than it should, or from delayed heartbeats, when the chambers contract less frequently than normal.
Congestive Heart Failure
Congestive heart failure is a condition in which the heart is unable to pump enough blood to meet the needs of the body. The condition is a result of other cardiovascular diseases that have damaged the heart to the extent that it can no longer function efficiently. Kidney function is profoundly affected by congestive heart failure. Because of the small cardiac output, the production of urine is reduced and fluid is retained, causing an increase in the volume of tissue fluid and blood.
Edema and Varicose Veins
Despite the presence of valves and the contributions of other anatomical and physiological adaptations we will cover shortly, over the course of a day, some blood will inevitably pool, especially in the lower limbs, due to the pull of gravity. Any blood that accumulates in a vein will increase the pressure within it, which can then be reflected back into the smaller veins, venules, and eventually even the capillaries. Increased pressure will promote the flow of fluids out of the capillaries and into the interstitial fluid. The presence of excess tissue fluid around the cells leads to a condition called edema.
Most people experience a daily accumulation of tissue fluid, especially if they spend much of their work life on their feet (like most health professionals). However, clinical edema goes beyond normal swelling and requires medical treatment. Edema has many potential causes, including hypertension and heart failure, severe protein deficiency, renal failure, and many others. In order to treat edema, which is a sign rather than a discrete disorder, the underlying cause must be diagnosed and alleviated.
Edema may be accompanied by varicose veins, especially in the superficial veins of the legs. This disorder arises when defective valves allow blood to accumulate within the veins, causing them to distend, twist, and become visible on the surface of the integument. Varicose veins may occur in both sexes, but are more common in women and are often related to pregnancy. More than simple cosmetic blemishes, varicose veins are often painful and sometimes itchy or throbbing. Without treatment, they tend to grow worse over time. The use of support hose, as well as elevating the feet and legs whenever possible, may be helpful in alleviating this condition. Laser surgery and interventional radiologic procedures can reduce the size and severity of varicose veins. Severe cases may require conventional surgery to remove the damaged vessels. As there are typically redundant circulation patterns, that is, anastomoses, for the smaller and more superficial veins, removal does not typically impair the circulation. There is evidence that patients with varicose veins suffer a greater risk of developing a thrombus or clot.