Coronary heart disease is a worry but diagnosis isn’t end of the world

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Every day in Scotland, 40 people lose their lives to heart and circulatory disease. Every week, around 500 people go to hospital due to a heart attack. And every month, 26 babies are diagnosed with a heart defect.

When it comes to heart disease, we throw around a lot of statistics. They’re important because they help people to understand the enormous scale of the problem we face. The good news is that death rates have fallen significantly in the last few decades, thanks to the research that has brought new discoveries in diagnosis, prevention and treatment.

But coronary heart disease is still the single biggest killer of Scots, and there are around 670,000 people coping every day with the challenges of heart and circulatory disease.

And we also need to remember that, behind every one of those numbers, there is an individual and a family with first-hand experience of the 
devastation that heart disease can cause.

Imagine finding out that your long-awaited baby has been born with a complex heart problem. The tragedy of your teenager heading off to school one day, and never coming home because they’ve suffered a cardiac arrest with absolutely no warning.

Or the shock of discovering that you are one of the estimated 50,000 people in Scotland who carry a faulty gene that could cause sudden death, and having to explain to your family that they might be at risk too.

That’s why we’ve been working hard throughout February to spread the word about how heart disease can rip apart people’s lives.

As we’ve worked on this campaign, I’ve had the privilege of meeting some utterly inspiring individuals and families who have been helping us to raise awareness of the heart conditions that affect them.

One of those people is Ross Peters, now aged 23, who had initially become ill on holiday in Greece in 2015. He went to his GP when he got home, feeling bloated and breathless. Ross was shocked to find out that he had inherited a faulty gene that caused him to develop dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).

This condition causes the heart muscle to become stretched and thin, and stops the heart being able to pump blood around the body efficiently. A scan revealed that Ross’s heart was twice its normal size, and he describes his diagnosis as the worst moment of his life.

Fortunately, Ross has responded really well to treatment, and in August last year he had an implantable electronic defibrillator fitted at the Golden Jubilee Hospital.

He admits that he struggled at first with the emotional impact of his condition, feeling down about not being able to do everyday things like cooking for himself or walking the dog. Over time, Ross has come to terms with it and, as his physical condition has improved too, he’s now feeling more like himself, getting back to work in the family firm in Dundee, and living his life to the full.

As the faulty gene causing Ross’s DCM is inherited, the rest of his family were tested too.

There was a history of heart problems on father Norrie’s side of the family, and he has been found to have the faulty gene, although he hasn’t developed the same severe symptoms. Younger brothers Ryan (20) and 
Aaron (19) are waiting for the results of their tests, so it’s still a worrying time for the family.

Like so many of the remarkable people I meet through my job, Ross and his family have reacted really positively to a frightening situation. They want to share their experience to make more people aware that heart conditions can affect anyone, at any time.

Thanks to the generous support of our volunteers and donors over many years, BHF-funded researchers have identified some of the genes responsible for conditions like the one affecting the Peters family. The BHF has also helped to develop and fund genetic testing for some of these conditions, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

As director of BHF Scotland, I’m hugely proud of the fact that we’re the nation’s largest independent funder of cardiovascular research. Right now, we’re investing around £63 million in Scottish universities, funding pioneering research into many of the heart and circulatory conditions that continue to devastate families every single day.

Just as I’m humbled by our supporters who are affected by heart disease, I’m also hugely motivated when I meet our researchers. Because each one of them is working tirelessly to find new ways to fight back against heart disease and the devastation that it causes to every person and every family affected. If you’re worried about your heart health, or concerned that your family could be affected by an inherited heart condition, you can call our Heart Helpline on 0300 330 3311.

And there’s more information on how the BHF is working to end the devastation of heart disease at www.bhf.org.uk/unexpected

James Cant, Director, BHF Scotland

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