Heart disease plagues the world. It’s no longer characterized by faulty eating habits or lack of exercise. The ripples are widespread, affecting both the young and old, men and women, in each generation. It is the number one cause of death, worldwide, in men and women – claiming more than 17 million lives each year.
Because heart disease permanently damages the vessels, muscles, or overall efficiency of the cardiovascular system, there are minimal opportunities for the heart to regenerate so lost muscle or tissue is replaced by scar tissue. Ultimately, this progressively reduces cardiac function which can lead to heart failure . Although there are preventative steps for heart failure, such as dieting, exercise, and reducing blood pressure, these methods often ignore the root problem: a heart that is devoid of functional cardiac muscle cells. However, there are recent medical advancements utilizing stem cells that are looking to restore function in damage cardiac cells rather than work around them.
Understanding Heart Disease
Heart disease describes a range of conditions that affect your heart, such as blood vessels diseases, heart rhythm complications, or even a congenital heart defect. The symptoms can be completely different for men and women. For example, men are more likely to experience chest pain during a myocardial infarction (heart attack) while women are more likely to experience chest discomfort, shortness of breath, nausea, and extreme fatigue. Although the symptoms may vary, they are not absolute indicators of any disorder until verified by a medical professional. However, one should still be aware and remain alert of the possibility.
Heart Attacks and Congestive Heart Failure
Currently, the most commonly known heart diseases are myocardial infarctions and congestive heart failure. They’re usually managed by changing one’s lifestyle, such as lowering salt and fat intake, exercising regularly, or quitting smoking. Generally, to treat them, the doctors use a procedure called angioplasty to disrupt the blood clog and widen clogged arteries in patients with acute myocardial infarctions.
Afterward, there is a tiny balloon that is inserted and inflated in the damaged artery in order to keep the artery open and reduce the chances that it’ll be blocked again. For congestive heart failure, a surgical procedure may be undertaken to repair or replace damaged heart valves or bypass coronary arteries with grafts. In the most severe case, a pacemaker may be implanted to control heart rhythms.
There are other types of heart diseases caused by a number of different factors, which will be explained below.
Atherosclerotic disease is the hardening and narrowing of the arteries. Essentially, the blood vessels (arteries) that carry oxygen and nutrients from your heart to the rest of your body become thick and stiff, restricting sufficient blood flow to your tissue and organs. Although there are varying degrees of severity, it means that your arteries are gradually losing their elasticity and flexibility.
- Commonly caused by high blood pressure, smoking, or high cholesterol
- This is the usual cause of heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral vascular disease
- Symptoms include: chest pain/tightness/pressure; shortness of breath; pain, numbness, weakness in the legs or arms; pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen or back
Heart arrhythmias occur when the electrical impulses that coordinate your heartbeat aren’t working properly. Although it can seem harmless, it can be potentially life-threatening. A method to improve the condition is adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle to prevent further weakening of the heart.
- Abnormal heartbeat – may be too fast, too slowly, or irregular
- Symptoms include: fluttering in the chest; racing heartbeat; slow heartbeat; chest pain or discomfort; shortness of breath; dizziness; near fainting or lightheadedness
Heart defects are often a problem with the structure of the heart. Congenital heart defects are the most common type of birth defect – most of them involving the walls or valves of the heart. It can disrupt the normal flow of blood to the heart, weakening the heart muscles.
- Can be congenital – usually evident soon after birth
- Symptoms include: pale gray or blue-ish skin (cyanosis); swelling in the legs, abdomen, or areas around the eyes; shortness of breath in infants
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Weak heart muscles
Weak heart muscles occurs when the heart muscles are weakened, stretched, or have a structural problem. It reduces the efficiency of the heart’s pumping and, if left untreated, can lead to heart failure. There are many different types with individual corresponding causes.
Types are dilated cardiomyopathy, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, ischemic cardiomyopathy, restrictive cardiomyopathy, or peripartum cardiomyopathy.
Symptoms include: breathlessness after exertion; swelling of the legs, ankles, and feet; fatigue; irregular heartbeats; dizziness
Heart infections are an infection caused by bacteria that enter the bloodstream and settle in the heart lining, valve, or blood vessel. Although they are uncommon, people with heart conditions have a greater risk of developing it.
It can be called endocarditis – an infection that affects the inner membrane of the heart’s chambers
Symptoms include: fever; shortness of breath; weakness/fatigue; swelling in the legs or abdomen; fast or slow heart rate; dry or persistent cough; skin rashes
Valvular heart disease
Valvular heart disease is the presence of damage or defection in one of the four heart valves.
This can occur when one of the four valves are damaged for some specific reason – leading to narrowing of the valve and improper closing or regurgitation of blood
Symptoms include: fatigue; shortness of breath; irregular heartbeat; swollen feet or ankles; chest pain; possible fainting
Stem Cell In The Heart
With all these detrimental medical conditions for one of the most important organs, researchers are using stem cells in two important ways to improve cardiac health. First, in a situation where the disorder is congenital, they are transforming their stem cells into afflicted cardiac muscle cells and discovering new drugs to combat the ailment. The second way is through cellular therapy – repairing and replacing damaged cardiac tissue with stem cell-derived cardiac tissue. Researchers are able to grow cardiomyocytes from embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells.
Recent studies have involved scientists transplanting different types of stem cell and progenitor cells into patients to repair the damaged heart muscle. These strategies have either used adult stem cells or pluripotent cells. Preliminary results from adult stem cells have shown an in cardiac function but after various clinical trials, the consensus was that adult stem cells have only a modest, at best, effect on cardiac function. New trials in Britain, however, have shown researchers reaching a breakthrough in a treatment that may minimize the need for surgical operations. The idea was to revitalize tissue damage by using cells that were taken from the patient’s blood. The new stem cell treatment means that while someone is having a heart attack, the treatment can take place at their home, with the stem cells working quickly so that the organ can recover within a matter of months.
Cardiac Arrest and It’s Effect
The reason for this approach is because of cardiac arrest – when it seizes the heart, it permanently damages the vessels. Dr. John Hung, a cardiology specialist working on the trials in Edinburg, stated that the treatment is beneficial for those who are still in the process of recovering – between 2 – 5 years. Essentially, it works best on those who have recently survived a heart attack. However, because of the damage that is normally done after a cardiac arrest, it is imperative that it is taken within this range. Early treatment can increase the chances of survival for those who are caught in the throes of recovery. Professor David Newby, at the University of Edinburg and lead researcher, expressed that those who entered the trial had shown significant improvement to their health following the stem cell treatment.
A similar idea was used two years prior, in 2016. Stem cell therapy was improving the long-term health outcome in patients with severe heart failure. The therapy involved extracting stem cells from a patient’s bone marrow and injecting those stem cells into the localized damaged region. The results showed over a year, “37 percent lower rate of the trial’s primary endpoint… cardiovascular hospitalizations and clinics visits for sudden worsening of heart failure symptoms.” Stem cell therapy has proven to be a successful therapy for patients with severe cardiovascular issues and as time goes on, there will be more discoveries and innovations in the pursuit of curing heart disease.
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