Former Springbok rugby captain Joost van der Westhuizen is in a serious condition in hospital after collapsing at his home on Saturday night. Early reports are suggesting that he had either a stroke or a heart attack, although this has yet to be confirmed.
Heart attack vs. stroke
A stroke: is an acute injury to brain tissue, resulting from an interruption of blood flow to an area of the brain.
If the blood flow can be restored in time, the damage may be completely or partly reversible, or at least limited in extent. The crucial factor here is rapid diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
The visible effects of a stroke, regardless of the cause, will depend on the area of the brain damaged – both where in the brain the stroke has occurred, and how large the area affected – and again, on how quickly blood flow is restored. There may be some immediate improvement of symptoms, with further slow improvement in the months following the stroke.
A heart attack: is the death of heart muscle due to the complete blockage of a diseased coronary artery due to a blood clot. Coronary artery disease is by far the most common cause, and occurs when the coronary arteries become narrowed, usually as a result of fatty cholesterol deposits (plaque) in the arterial wall, which bulge inwards and partly obstruct the flow of blood.
The tip of this bulging cholesterol plaque can become eroded. The body attempts to seal this tip off by depositing blood platelets, forming a clot. As this clot increases in size, the artery becomes critically narrowed, or even totally blocked.
When the blood flow to the heart muscle is obstructed in this way, chest pain (angina) occurs. If the blood flow is totally cut off, the heart muscle actually dies, and this is called a heart attack, or acute myocardial infarct (AMI).
Stress a major factor in heart troubles
Although reports are still unclear as to whether Van der Westhuizen’s collapse is due to a stroke or a heart attack, speculation is rife that the stress caused by the much publicised sex video scandal in which he was implicated, may be to blame.
Local singer Steve Hofmeyr has publicly accused the tabloids for putting Van der Westhuizen under ‘unbearable stress’.
He may not be wrong about the stress, which is a major risk factor in both strokes and heart attacks, and has been known to cause or worsen the following cardiovascular conditions: heart attack, high blood pressure, thickening of the arteries (atherosclerosis or plaque formation), thrombosis (formation of blood clots) and stroke.
Many medical doctors believe that occupational, relationship, financial and/or work-related stress is the most important risk factor and cause for coronary heart disease and heart attacks, often starting with a silent elevation in blood pressure.
Research also shows that people who cut their stress levels and keep them under control face a 60% lower chance of suffering a heart attack or stroke than constant worriers.
Do this stress test to assess your stress levels.
References: Sapa, News24, Eye Witness News
(Amy Henderson, Health24, June 2009)