How smoking affects the heart with information on cardiovascular diseases.

smoking and the heart
What is cardiovascular disease?
Cardiovascular disease is a term that is used to describe a number of different diseases that affect the heart and the circulatory system, in particular the heart, the arteries and the blood vessels. In general terms, cardiovascular diseases are caused by an insufficient blood flow and supply through the arteries to the heart, brain and other organs of the body.

The reduced blood supply is caused as the main arteries become clogged up and narrow due to the build up of fatty deposits in the walls of the arteries. This is a process that will develop over a long period of time, although it usually starts when people are in their teens and there are several factors that may speed up the process and therefore put some people at a higher risk of suffering from a cardiovascular disease.
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Cardiovascular diseases include heart attack, atherosclerosis, stroke, angina, peripheral vascular disease, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and aorta aneurysm.

What are the risk factors of cardiovascular disease?

  • Smoking
  • High levels of cholesterol and triglyceroides in the blood
  • High blood pressure
  • Lack of exercise
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
All of these risks can be controlled or modified, in which case the risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease can be greatly reduced.

Smoking is the biggest risk factor out of all of the above and also contributes to the increase of some of the other factors.

Smoking accelerates the process of atherosclerosis, or the build up of fatty deposits and cholesterol in the arteries. Each time a person smokes a cigarette, the blood vessels become sticky from the chemicals in the tobacco smoke and this leads to fat collecting and sticking to the artery walls. Most of the other cardiovascular diseases and coronary heart diseases are caused by the progression of atherosclerosis.

Likewise, smoking also increases blood pressure and the heart rate, which means that the body will need more oxygen. The heart will have to work faster to obtain the necessary oxygen, which is in poor supply due to the effects of the carbon monoxide from the tobacco smoke and this will therefore lead to stress on the heart, which could cause angina or a sudden heart attack.

Not only this, but smoking decreases a person's tolerance to exercise, which would keep the heart strong, and it also increases the tendency for the blood to clot due to an increase in the levels of fibrinogen, a protein that can cause the blood to clot.

How the heart works

The heart is a really powerful and probably the most important muscle in the body. Blood from the heart and the lungs is pumped through the arteries to the capillaries and into the veins (blood vessels), which in turn are directed back to the heart and the lungs.

Oxygen is carried in the blood and is circulated around the whole of the body, nourishing the cells as it goes. A person needs a healthy supply of oxygen in order to stay healthy. Therefore if blood circulation is restricted or reduced, so is the amount of oxygen travelling around the body, which can result in any one of a number of cardiovascular diseases.

Smoking and atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is the progressive thickening and hardening of the arteries through which the blood flows. Over time, fatty deposits, called plaques and cholesterol, build up in the arteries making them narrower and therefore restrict the flow of the blood to the brain, heart and the rest of the body.

Atherosclerosis is the underlying cause of heart attacks, strokes, heart diseases and most other cardiovascular diseases.

Poisons and toxins in the tobacco smoke that enter the blood greatly contribute to and accelerate the build up of the plaque and smoking also raises the blood cholesterol levels.

Smoking and heart attack

When the process of atherosclerosis is so severe that it causes a blockage in the main artery that leads to the heart, a heart attack can occur. This is because blood and oxygen cannot pass through, a clot may form and the heart subsequently dies as a result. The risk of a heart attack is also increased from other effects of smoking as smoking robs the body of oxygen. As carbon monoxide enters the body when a person smokes a cigarette it attaches itself more easily to the blood cells than oxygen does thus depleting the oxygen supply even more.

Smoking and angina

Angina is caused when the blood supply to the heart is interrupted. This is usually caused by physical exercise but can also be caused by smoking. The result is a tightness and pain of the chest. Angina does not cause death as a heart attack may.

Smoking and a stroke

Cigarette smoking puts people at a higher risk of suffering a stroke. A stroke occurs when there is a lack of blood and oxygen reaching the brain or if an artery ruptures and blood escapes into the brain.

Lack of oxygen to the brain is caused by atherosclerosis in the main artery that leads to the brain, which restricts the blood flow and therefore the amount of oxygen that is carried with it. As the blood flow is restricted due to the fatty deposit build up, which narrows the arteries, a blood clot may form and a stroke will result as the tissues around the brain are starved of oxygen.

Smoking and high blood pressure

A stroke may also be caused by high blood pressure, which is in turn increased by smoking. The nicotine in the tobacco smoke causes the blood pressure to rise and this can result in heart failure as well.

Smoking and peripheral vascular disease

This is the narrowing of the arteries that lead to the hands and feet due to the process of atherosclerosis. The result is a reduced blood supply and poor blood circulation to these areas, which may cause pain whilst walking and at worst may lead to amputation. 90% of sufferers of this disease are smokers.

Statistics

  • Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US, Australia and in the UK.
  • Strokes are the third leading cause of death.
  • Nearly 40% of people who die from smoking, die from some form of cardiovascular disease.
  • Smoking increases the risk of a heart attack by up to six times.
  • Women over 35 who use the contraceptive pill and smoke are at a high risk of suffering from heart disease.
  • Smoking increases the risk of a stroke by a third.
  • Heavy smokers are at a much higher risk of suffering from all the above diseases.
  • The development of atherosclerosis is increased by 50% in smokers.
  • Heart disease from smoking is increased in people under the age of 45.
  • Peripheral vascular disease risk is increased by 16 times in smokers.
  • The risk of cardiovascular disease increases with exposure to tobacco smoke.

Benefits of giving up smoking

The effects and benefits of giving up smoking on the cardiovascular system are immediate and greatly reduce the risk of suffering any one of these diseases.

If a smoker quits smoking, after 15 years he has the same risk of suffering from heart disease as a non-smoker.

Once a smoker stops smoking atherosclerosis is slowed down, the blood is less likely to clot and oxygen and blood can pass through the arteries more freely and more easily, which relieves stress on the heart.

Cholesterol levels are also reduced, which will slow the build up of cholesterol in the arteries and there will be much less carbon monoxide in the body, which means a greater supply of oxygen.

Blood pressure decreases and a person will find it much easier and more pleasurable to exercise, which will keep the heart as well as the rest of the body healthy.
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