Hardening of the Arteries: Sudden Death of Ex-Dolphins Coach Puts Focus on Atherosclerosis

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July 24, 2018


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Atherosclerosis — more commonly known as ‘hardening of the arteries’ — is a slow, progressive disease that can start in childhood. In some people, it can start to develop at a faster rate in their 30s and 40s, narrowing the vessels that carry oxygenated blood from the heart to other parts of the body.

And in some individuals, atherosclerosis doesn’t become dangerous until they reach their 50s or 60s — especially if left untreated. Former Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano died Sunday from atherosclerosis, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office in Minnesota announced Monday. Mr. Sparano was the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line coach. He coached the Dolphins from 2008-2011.

The sudden death of Mr. Sparano, who was 56, has refocused attention on heart disease, the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S.  Atherosclerosis refers to the build-up of cholesterol plaque in the walls of arteries that causes obstruction of blood flow. And atherosclerosis is a common cause of heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral vascular disease  — all conditions or events that fall under the category of heart disease.

According to media reports and authorities, Mr. Sparano collapsed at his home in Eden Prairie, Minnesota on Sunday. He had reportedly suffered chest pains on Thursday and underwent unspecified testing at a Minnesota hospital. The medical examiner’s office said it had no other information to release at this time.

About 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year –that’s 1 in every 4 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Atherosclerosis often has no symptoms until a plaque ruptures, or the build-up of plaque is severe enough to block blood flow.

In addition to hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes and high cholesterol, risk factors for heart disease include smoking, a family history of heart disease, age, lack of exercise, and being overweight.

Half of Heart Attacks are ‘Silent’
An estimated half of heart attacks have symptoms that are mistaken for less serious health issues, increasing a person’s risk of dying. They are often referred to as “silent heart attacks” because they lack the traditional signs of a cardiac event, such as extreme chest pain or pressure; stabbing pain in the arm, neck, or jaw — or even shortness of breath.

The best way to avoid cardiac events and treat heart disease is to get regular checkups with your primary care physician to determine if you have risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, says  Dean Heller, M.D., a cardiologist with Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute.

“It’s important to keep up with those readings that determine your risk for coronary artery disease,” says Dr. Heller. “If you know your risk is elevated, you are less likely to dismiss not-so-obvious signs of a heart attack.”

An electrocardiogram (EKG) or echocardiogram can determine if there is heart muscle damage. Another method is a blood test for the molecular footprints of troponin T, a protein released by injured heart cells. The troponin T test is used in emergency departments for patient complaining of heart attack symptoms.

Cardiac calcium scoring allows doctors to determine your likelihood of experiencing a heart attack in the next five to 10 years. It involves undergoing a noninvasive CT scan that measures any calcium buildup in the walls of the heart’s blood vessels.

Curtis Hamburg, M.D., a cardiologist and director of echocardiography for Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, explains that calcium is often present when the plaque that blocks arteries begins to form.

“Historically, to determine a person’s risk, we relied on a 10-year vascular risk model that factors in blood pressure and cholesterol numbers and is based on the percentage of a population with similar numbers that would experience a cardiac event,” Dr. Hamburg said. “If the calculated risk was high, we would most likely implement lifestyle changes and prescribe medication to lower cholesterol.”

You are a candidate for cardiac calcium scoring if you are age 40-65 and have any one of the following risk factors: smoking; family history of heart disease; obesity; high cholesterol; high blood pressure; and diabetes.

Heart Attack Symptoms
Common signs of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain or pressure, or a strange feeling in the chest.
  • Sweating.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in the back, neck, jaw, or upper belly, or in one or both shoulders or arms.
  • Lightheadedness or sudden weakness.
  • A fast or irregular heartbeat.

Women could also experience the following conditions and should also seek immediate medical attention:

  • Pain in the arm (especially left arm), back, neck, abdomen or shoulder blades.
  • Jaw pain.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Overwhelming and unusual fatigue, sometimes with shortness of breath.
  • Light headedness or sweating.

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