A Matter of the Heart

For a parent or grandparent heart problems can present themselves at any time, but what about your young family?

On the 17th March 2012, during a football game between Bolton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur, professional footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch suffering from a cardiac arrest. He received lengthy treatment on the field, including from a consultant cardiologist who was attending the match as a fan, and was taken to a specialist coronary care unit in London. Despite his heart stopping for an incredible 78 minutes, he was finally resuscitated and was fortunate enough to go on to make a full recovery, albeit he never played football again. He was just 24 at the time.

It may seem incomprehensible that someone so fit and healthy could su er from such a condition, but cardiac arrest in the young is a problem which has touched many families in the UK.

This is something that Dr Steve Cox, chief executive and director of screening at the charity Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY), is looking to eliminate forever: “One in 300 young people will have a potentially life-threatening cardiac problem – that is what we find in the screening program – and one in 100 people will have a condition which is not immediately life-threatening, but will cause problems in their fourth decade of life.”

 

CRY was set up a little over 25 years ago to raise awareness of sudden young cardiac death, to provide screening services and to support families after they are affected by a death of someone close to them. For something that could affect so many of us, especially those of us who are parents or grandparents, it is remarkable how little coverage they receive in the mainstream media.

“Twelve young people die of cardiac arrest a week in the UK, one of the most common causes of death in young people, and when screening programs are established it can lead to an 89% reduction in the number of sudden cardiac deaths,” explains Dr Cox. One person who benefitted from the work that CRY do is Chris Smith, a 23 year old IT worker from Preston, who went along to one of their screenings back in 2009, when he was just sixteen years old. Back then Chris, a keen swimmer, was unaware of the hidden danger lying beneath his ribs – and what he thought were mere annoyances were actually symptoms.

“When I was swimming four or five times a week, I would sometimes feel strangely tired. Almost like I’d been at the gym too long. I would have to take a rest and could feel my heart beating a little bit faster than it usually does,” he explains. “Looking back now, I can relate that to a heart problem, but at the time I didn’t think there was anything wrong. I just thought I was working out too hard.”

Twelve young people die of cardiac arrest a week in the UK

The screening revealed that Chris had a condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a disorder that affects the electrical system of the heart. “Basically your heart is in two chambers – top and bottom – and you should have one main strand connecting the two down the middle, but I had an extra electrical pathway on the left hand side of my heart,” says Chris. “So, the electric impulses from my heart would go in a loop causing palpitations, so that was why my heart would be racing after I finished swimming and in some cases would start racing for no reason.”

Chris was given two options for his treatment: to go on beta blockers for life, or have a catheter ablation to permanently fix his electrical pathways. He opted for the surgery, which was a success and Chris has been symptom-free for seven years.

For Dr Cox, Chris’ story shows the importance of heart screening in the young, but he is keen to stress this is something we should all be concerned about, irrespective of our age: “It is important for all of us to not take our hearts for granted, especially those taking up exercise regimes or the older athletes who are starting to do triathlons, or marathons in their fifth decade of life.

“We see elite athletes collapsing and that has a massive impact on us, but there are very few incidents which are covered like this. Most sudden deaths will occur at rest or during sleep, so it is important we realise it is not just elite athletes. It can be at grassroots sports at any age, or just the normal fit-and-healthy kid doing PE.”

So, while you may be naturally concerned about your children and grandchildren, it is important to remember to keep on top of your heart health in older age. Coronary heart disease is the UK’s single biggest killer, with nearly 70,000 people dying from the disease each year. And it is thought that one in seven men will die from coronary heart disease, according to statistics released by the British Heart Foundation.

The BHF has plenty of resources to help those who are worried about their heart health. So, for example, if you are taking up a new exercise as a means to get healthier, they suggest it would be prudent to ensure you have an exercise ECG before you start. This is a standard ECG test that is recorded while you are walking on a treadmill or cycling on an exercise bike. The goal is to see how your heart copes when put under stress and to see whether your heart muscles are getting enough blood. The BHF still stresses that exercise is an important part of staving o heart disease, but it is essential that you know your heart’s limitations before you start.

For those of you who are looking for a more extensive scan of your heart it could be worth considering having a full screening process. “When reducing the risks of cardiovascular disease there are plenty of lifestyle factors you can change, from quitting smoking to improving your diet. The two risk factors you simply cannot change are your age and genetics,” says Simone Brouard, of the Royal Brompton & Harefield Hospital.

“With busy lifestyles many people feel tired all the time, but excessive fatigue, especially on exertion, can be a sign of heart problems. A fluttering sensation in the chest or throat, a sensation of ‘missed’ beats or a feeling that the heart is racing may indicate a problem with the heart’s rhythm,” she adds.

It is important that we raise awareness and tackle these issues

It is up to us to make sure that we look after our hearts, to go and book a screening for ourselves if we are experiencing any of the above symptoms, to ensure that our children are fit and healthy and to put pressure on the government to make sure more is done to tackle heart disease.

It is important that we raise awareness and tackle these issues – not with a whisper, but with a cry.

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Adam Tudor-Lane

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