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The Heart-Lung Connection: What It Means to People With COPD

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If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you may be a lot more focused on your lungs than on your heart. Yet these two organ systems are intimately connected and the health of one system can significantly affect the health of the other. 

Researchers have long known that advanced COPD can harm the heart. Now, a study in The New England Journal of Medicine indicates that even mild cases of COPD can be associated with diminished heart function. 

While that may not sound like good news, there is an upside. You can take steps to help your lungs and your heart -- and the sooner you take them the better. 

What’s the connection? The heart and lungs work together to deliver oxygen to and remove carbon dioxide from the body's tissues. When you inhale, oxygen enters the blood via little sacs in the lungs called alveoli. The oxygenated blood travels through the pulmonary veins to the left side of the heart, where it is pumped throughout the body. The deoxygenated blood then returns to the right side of the heart and is pumped through the pulmonary arteries to the lungs. When you exhale, carbon dioxide exits your body and the cycle starts again. 

But this process can go awry in people with COPD. Low oxygen levels in the alveoli cause the pulmonary arteries to constrict (narrow) and the normally low pressure in the arteries to rise. If the pressure in the pulmonary arteries rises to a sufficiently high level, a condition called secondary pulmonary hypertension develops. 

In pulmonary hypertension, the right side of the heart must work harder to push blood through the pulmonary arteries into the lungs. Over time, the heart's right ventricle becomes thick and enlarged and the heart's pumping action may deteriorate. The result of this damage may be heart failure. 

In a person with left heart failure, fluid builds up in the lungs and other organs as well as in the arms and legs, causing fatigue and breathlessness on exertion. The condition also increases the risk of pulmonary emboli (blood clots in the lung), which can further block blood vessels in the lungs. When right-sided heart failure results from a lung disorder, fluid builds up in the legs and arms but less so in the lungs, and it is referred to as cor pulmonale. 

 

Posted in Lung Disorders on June 30, 2011


Medical Disclaimer: This information is not intended to substitute for the advice of a physician. Click here for additional information: Johns Hopkins Health Alerts Disclaimer


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