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The great heart debate: The difference between a heart attack and heart failure

by , 05 September 2014

When 42-year-old Jason collapsed at work clutching his chest, he told everyone he'd had a heart attack.

That's what 76-year-old Grandpa Albert's family told his friends too when he went into hospital because of his heart

Here's the thing: What happened to Jason and Grandpa Albert is very different.

Yes, they both had heart problems. But one of them happens quite suddenly, while the other takes time to cause damage.

Let me explain…

There are major differences between a heart attack and heart failure

1.    A heart attack happens when there’s a blood vessel blockage in the heart.
There needs to be complete blockage or a severe narrowing of a vessel to cause a heart attack.
Consider what happens when you water your garden. If you block one of the sprinklers in your irrigation system, the other sprinklers work fine and the flowers are happy. But keep the last sprinkler off and the flowers at the end of the garden will die.
It’s the same with your heart.
The American Heart Association explains that plaques in the vessels are the main cause of heart attacks. When the plaques become unstable, they cause damage to the inner lining of the vessel. Your body automatically starts the clotting process in the spot to prevent further damage at the site. And, because the vessel is already narrow, the clots completely block it off.
Sometimes, these original clots break off in larger vessels and move to smaller ones where they get stuck.
When this happens, it literally causes a part of the muscle in the heart to die because no nutrients or essential oxygen can get to the rest of the muscle below the blockage.
As the muscle dies, it releases toxins. This is a normal process of cell death and, is what caused the chest pain Jason felt before he collapsed.
With this, there’s an increase in inflammation within the tissue. And just like when you cut yourself and your body begins to heal after the damage, scar tissue forms in place of the muscle.
This part of the heart can no longer do its job and the rest of your heart continues to do what it did.
That’s why you collapse. Becasue the rest of your body doesn’t get enough oxygen and nutrients either!
But heart failure is different…
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2.    Your heart fails when it’s under pressure to do more than it’s capable of for a long time
Heart failure, on the other hand, is a chronic disease. It happens over a period of time.
Factors like high blood pressure, smoking, obesity, lung problems and high cholesterol put strain on your heart.
Again, think about the sprinkler system in your garden. If you put in a much smaller hosepipe but turn the tap on to the normal level, the pressure of the water is a lot higher.
If you leave it like that, the pipes become rigid and the tap may burst because of the backward pressure.
This is what happens when you have high blood pressure.
For some reason, your arteries aren’t able to expand as they once did. It could be because they’re rigid with plaques, or there’s something wrong with the actual muscle structure.
This means your heart constantly pumps against this resistance and, like the tap in your garden, your heart can’t take it forever.
But your heart is a bit more savvy than the tap! It can actually change itself to become a little more accommodating. So, to cope with the higher pressure, it makes its muscle stronger.
Your heart muscles literally grows in your chest!
And it can continue for months or even years with the new strength.
But there’s always a limit. And eventually the muscles becomes extremely fatigued and starts losing their ability to pump.
The muscles soften and become flabby, so there’s no way it can keep up with the demands of your body.
So while Jason’s heart is able to still cope with the changes if he makes sure there’s no more damage, Grandpa Albert’s heart is not. 

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