What are Heart Muscle Diseases?
The heart predominantly comprises billions of heart muscle cells or ‘cardiomyocites’. Heart muscle diseases are those disorders that directly affect heart muscle cells and cause inadequate pumping of the heart, known as heart failure. The early signs of heart failure are shortness of breath during mild exertion and, as the illness worsens, breathlessness even while simply sitting or lying down. Another symptom is the build-up of fluids in the body.
Nearly 270,000 Australians have heart muscle failure and another 400 are added to the list each week. Sufferers only have a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the first five years from diagnosis – a worse outlook than for many cancers.1
We urgently need a better understanding of heart muscle disease. The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute is playing a leading role in this great challenge.
Turning the tide
Serious medical research into the heart’s engine-like performance began around a hundred years ago. Building on the discoveries made, researchers turned their attention to what, by the 1950s, had become the single biggest cause of death in the western world – premature coronary artery disease.
The main risk factors in our ‘heart attack epidemic’ were quickly found to be high fat diets, smoking and high blood pressure. Armed with these insights, governments around the world have induced people to modify their lifestyles for the better.
The results are truly astounding. Since its peak in 1967, age-adjusted rates of mortality from coronary artery disease have been cut by three quarters and are still falling. We now know a lot about coronary artery disease – but still have a lot to learn about the other significant source of cardiac disease – the heart muscle itself.
Unlocking the mysteries of heart muscle disease
If diseased heart muscle loses pumping power, the obvious cure is to return the power to normal. But it’s difficult to treat a disease and muscle tissue that we don’t completely understand.
At this stage we still know so little about the effects of experimental drugs, let alone more radical solutions like artificial hearts or heart transplants from animals. So many patients are still left with human heart transplant as their only option. However there are never enough donors to meet demand.
The only long term solution is for medical research to unlock the mysteries of heart muscle tissue and heart muscle disease, so we can develop effective, sustainable treatments. To this end, scientists at the Victor Chang are working to complete our understanding of how the heart muscle develops and functions in both a normal and diseased state, so future generations can benefit from more effective prevention and treatments that reduce reverse the fatal progress of heart muscle disease.
1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2010. Women and heart disease: cardiovascular profile of women in Australia. Cardiovascular disease series no. 33. Cat. no. CVD 49. Canberra: AIHW
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