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28th September 2017

Powering your heart

Many think that heart problems are exclusively an affliction of older people, but cardiovascular disease can affect younger adults and children, too. Fortunately, medical technology can help heart patients live full lives.  

Although it’s true that aging as well as certain lifestyle choices can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), some people are born with heart defects or other conditions that can predispose them to heart disease and stroke.

Take little Mia, for example. When she was just four years old, doctors discovered that she had a malformed aorta (the largest artery in the body that transports blood from the heart), which put pressure on her windpipe and made it hard for her to breathe and swallow. Complex surgery was required to repair the defect, but with the aid of a 3D-printed model of Mia’s heart, doctors were able to customise the surgery and give her the best possible outcome.

Katja Jensen also owes her life to cutting-edge medical technology. Having been born with a heart defect that required a transplant at the age of 11, Katja was concerned when she started experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath and dizziness at 25. The diagnosis was a faulty aortic valve, which would normally require open heart surgery. Because of her previous surgeries and an expected future heart transplant, surgery wasn’t an option. Doctors were able to replace the valve with an artificial one using a procedure called transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI), a minimally invasive and relatively low-risk procedure that took 30 minutes and had her back in the gym six weeks later.

For other people like Erica, heart problems can seemingly come out of the blue. One day, the sporty 38-year-old mother of four was playing tennis and the next day, she was having a heart attack. Her coronary artery wall had torn without any warning. After open heart surgery and a second heart attack, surgeons planned another operation to repair a leaky heart valve. But when the day came, it was deemed too risky to go ahead. Instead, the doctors were able to fix the valve using a small clip that was inserted via a vein in her leg, allowing for a full recovery within a few months.

Mike Higginbottom was similarly surprised when the bronchitis he was being treated for turned out to be aortic stenosis, which was restricting the flow of blood through his heart. When Mike arrived at hospital after having a cardiac arrest in the gym, he was given a 3% chance of survival. Using an echocardiogram to view real-time images of his heart, doctors were able to identify the problem and carry out surgery to replace the faulty valve with an artificial one, which gave him a new lease of life.

Despite these remarkable stories, CVD still claims some 17.5 million lives a year, making it the world’s leading cause of death. This number is expected to rise to 23 million by 2030, but campaigns like World Heart Day on September 29th every year aim to reverse this upward trajectory. By helping more people understand the causes of CVD and how it can often be prevented by lifestyle choices such as eating a healthy diet, quitting smoking and exercising regularly, at least 80% of premature deaths from heart disease and stroke could be avoided.