My father died of a heart attack. It was his third heart attack, and was his final one. He was 56 years of age, and the year was 1976.
The sad part of all this, was that his heart attacks could have been prevented, and even sadder, with today’s technology his life could have been saved even with the heart attacks.
Heart attacks are caused by the heart muscle starving for oxygen which is carried to the muscle by the arteries. If the blood has enough oxygen in it, then it is up to the arteries that supply the heart (called the coronary arteries) to get the oxygen there. But if these arteries are blocked then the muscle dies (called an ‘infarction’ or more simply – a heart attack).
Modern medicine can measure the amount of oxygen being carried in the blood and what is even better, can see whether the coronary arteries are likely to be blocked, and then measure any blockages.
The most usual blockages are caused by cholesterol, a blood component that can be easily measured. The higher the concentration, the more likely it is that it will start forming ‘plaques’, the starting point for a blockage.
The next step is to find out just how big the blockages are. This can be done by inserting a probe through an artery and directly measuring any blockage. This is called a coronary angiogram.
Another method of investigation can be done by CT scanning which directly measures the amount of calcium trapped by the cholesterol plaque. This is a non-invasive way to scan the coronary arteries.
So did my father have high cholesterol? We will never know as that blood test wasn’t done! How blocked were his coronary arteries? 50 percent? 90 percent? 100 percent? We will never know as those tests weren’t done in those days either.
All we did know was that he smoked – another item leading to heart attacks (and a lot more besides)!
So if his first heart attack had been today, we would have known how high was his cholesterol level, how blocked were his coronary arteries and would have put in stents to open blockages, or done coronary artery bypass grafting.
A lot has happened since 1976. Just a shame he was born too early.