Ways of treating cardiovascular disease

Coronary heart disease

Coronary heart disease occurs when a waxy plaque builds up inside the coronary arteries that supply the heart with oxygen. Drugs and surgery can help to control cardiovascular disease.

Medication

Statins are drugs that help to lower cholesterol in the blood. They do this by lowering the production of cholesterol in the liver.

Statins are prescribed for people with heart disease or who have a high risk of developing it. They need to be taken long-term. Cholesterol levels will rise again if a person stops taking them.

Some studies have raised concerns regarding the side effects of statin use, while others believe they can bring additional positive benefits.

Statins are not suitable for everyone - they should not be prescribed for people with liver disease, or pregnant or breast feeding women.

Some patients taking statins often experience side-effects such as headaches and memory loss. There have been reports of statins being linked with type 2 diabetes and liver damage.

Other people argue that statins should be used more widely. They may protect against other conditions such as Alzheimer's disease. Further research is needed.

Surgical procedures

Stents

Coronary arteries that are blocked or have become narrow can be stretched open and a stent inserted to restore and maintain blood flow.

They can be used in instances where drugs are less effective, and offer a longer term solution. Stents are made from metal alloys and do not lead to an immune response in the patient.

Around 75,000 operations are carried out each year. Risk factors depend on the patient's:

  • age
  • general health
  • whether they have had a heart attack

The operation is safe as it does not involve surgery, but there is a risk of bleeding, heart attack or stroke.

Heart transplants

A heart transplant is required in cases of heart failure. Coronary heart disease can lead to heart failure. The heart fails to pump sufficient blood and organs are starved of oxygen. There will be degrees of severity of heart failure.

A donor heart is transplanted. In rare cases, a heart is transplanted along with lungs.

A consultant assesses the patient's condition. If other treatments are not managing the heart condition, a transplant may be recommended and a patient will be put on a waiting list. A transplant puts major strain on the body, and the benefits and risks will be evaluated including whether the patient's condition is sufficiently severe and other health factors.

There is a shortage of donor hearts in the UK. Only around 200 transplants are carried out each year in a small number of hospitals.

Artificial hearts are plastic devices used occasionally to keep patients alive whilst waiting for a heart transplant. They can also be used to allow a patient's heart to rest to help it recover.

An illustration of an artificial heart

After the transplant, the patient will:

  • need time to heal, recover and build up strength
  • have to take drugs called immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their life - this prevents the person's immune system from rejecting the donor heart
  • have an increased risk of infection because of these drugs