Life Preserver for the Heart

March 2, 2009 8:03:52 AM PST
More than five million Americans are living with heart failure, according to the American Heart Association. This life threatening condition occurs when either or both chambers of the heart lose their ability to keep up with the amount of blood flow going through the organ. It's a chronic condition, meaning it won't go away and will probably get worse with time. Unfortunately, most people aren't aware they have heart failure until years after their heart begins to decline. Heart failure often leads to death by sudden cardiac death, or cardiac arrest. This is different than a heart attack, which happens when heart muscle dies. The most common cause of sudden cardiac death is an irregular heart rhythm, or arrhythmia. Research shows 50 percent of deaths in heart failure patients are sudden, and most are due to irregularly fast heart rhythms. CAUSES: The National Institutes of Health says the most common causes of heart failure are high blood pressure and coronary heart disease. Other causes include valvular heart disease, congenital heart disease, dilated cardiomyopahty, lung disease and heart tumors. Risk factors for heart failure include age, being overweight, having diabetes, smoking cigarettes, abusing alcohol and using cocaine.

TREATMENTS: Since damage is irreversible, treatments for heart failure involve managing symptoms. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends changes in lifestyle combined with medications. For severe heart failure, surgery is sometimes necessary. This may involve implanting a pacemaker to ensure both sides of the heart contract at the same time, or implanting an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD). ICDs correct heart rhythms that are too fast. For patients with severe heart failure who don't respond to other treatments, surgery may involve a mechanical heart pump or a heart transplant.

A PORTABLE LIFESAVER: For patients at risk for sudden cardiac arrest, a new, portable device can help them be more at ease. The LifeVest is the first wearable defibrillator. It monitors a patient's heart continuously, and delivers defibrillation if a life-threatening heart rhythm is detected. The device is made up of two components: an electrode belt and garment that surrounds the patient's chest, and a monitor the patient wears around their waist or from a shoulder strap. If the LifeVest identifies a treatable arrhythmia, it sounds an alarm. If the patient doesn't respond to the alarm, the device goes through messages and voice prompts that grow in intensity. If the patient is still unresponsive, a defibrillation shock is delivered. Up to four shocks can be delivered during an episode. The entire process, from detecting an arrhythmia to delivering a defibrillation shock, usually occurs in less than a minute. "We give patients a second chance at life -- the patients that have end-stage heart disease who, we think, within a year or two would no longer be around without these options," Debbie Rinde-Hoffman, M.D., medical director of the transplant program at Tampa General Hospital in Tampa, Fla., told Ivanhoe.

The LifeVest can also be connected to a telephone modem so heart-monitoring data can be sent to physicians. It is prescribed as a temporary solution for patients with certain heart problems.


Tampa General Hospital
Ellen Fiss, Public Relations Manager
(813) 844-6397