Heart of the matter

This week The Pharmacist will be running an in-depth feature on the biggest killer in the UK.

Join us every day this week for the latest information as Asha Fowells runs through how pharmacists can make a difference preventing and managing the deadly disease.

While cancer may seem to be headline news on an almost daily basis, it isn’t the biggest killer in the UK.

That unpalatable claim can be made by something far less attention-grabbing: coronary heart disease (CHD), which is also the leading cause of death worldwide.

The statistics are breathtakingly awful: CHD is cited as the cause of death for almost 70,000 deaths each year in this country, which equates to around 190 people every single day, or one every eight minutes.

The good news is that since the 1960s, CHD deaths in the UK have fallen by more than half. Still, with some 2.3 million people – more than 1.4 million men and 850,000 women, according to the British Heart Foundation – currently living with CHD in the UK, it is a clear and present danger, and there is much community pharmacy can do to help this population.

What is CHD?

CHD falls under the umbrella term cardiovascular disease, which also encompasses stroke, peripheral vascular disease and aortic disease. CHD occurs when the blood supply to the heart is disrupted due to atherosclerosis, the term used to describe the process by which the walls of the coronary arteries become narrower as a result of the accumulation of fatty deposits.

Many of the symptoms of CHD are considered health conditions in their own right:

  • Angina, partial blockage of the coronary arteries that leads to chest pain. This may be mild but can be severe. Because it is frequently set off by physical exertion, it can make a significant difference to how sufferers live their everyday lives with them becoming increasingly sedentary and sometimes isolated.
  • Myocardial infarction, often referred to as a heart attack, occurs when the blood supply to the heart is completely blocked. MI is a medical emergency, and can be differentiated from angina by the fact that sufferers often also experience pain radiating to the arm, back or jaw as well as in the chest, plus dizziness, sweating, nausea and breathlessness. However, it isn’t unknown for people to have no symptoms at all when experiencing an MI. Permanent damage to the heart muscle can ensue, and the incident can be fatal if not treated promptly.
  • Heart failure results from the heart becoming too weak to effectively pump blood around the body. Fluid may build up as a result, often in the lungs making it difficult to breathe, and also around the ankles causing swelling. Heart failure may be acute or chronic.

Not everyone with CHD has one of the above complications – though experiencing one may well be the reason CHD is diagnosed in the first place – but may complain of less specific symptoms such as feeling breathless and having palpitations.

Come back tomorrow as we take a closer look at prevention of CHD and share some valuable resources.