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Left ventricular hypertrophy

Of patients with hypertension, 15-20% develops LVH. The risk of LVH is increased 2-fold by associated obesity. The prevalence of LVH based on electrocardiogram (ECG) findings, which are not a sensitive marker at the time of diagnosis of hypertension, is variable.1,2 Studies have shown a direct relationship between the level and duration of elevated BP and LVH.

LVH, defined as an increase in the mass of the left ventricle (LV), is caused by the response of myocytes to various stimuli accompanying elevated BP. Myocyte hypertrophy can occur as a compensatory response to increased afterload. Mechanical and neurohormonal stimuli accompanying hypertension can lead to activation of myocardial cell growth, gene expression (of which some occurs primarily in fetal cardiomyocytes), and, thus, to LVH. In addition, activation of the renin-angiotensin system, through the action of angiotensin II on angiotensin I receptors, leads to growth of interstitium and cell matrix components. In summary, the development of LVH is characterized by myocyte hypertrophy and by an imbalance between the myocytes and the interstitium of the myocardial skeletal structure.

Various patterns of LVH have been described, including concentric remodeling, concentric LVH, and eccentric LVH. Concentric LVH is an increase in LV thickness and LV mass with increased LV diastolic pressure and volume, commonly observed in persons with hypertension and which is a marker of poor prognosis in these patients. Compare this with eccentric LVH, in which LV thickness is increased not uniformly but at certain sites, such as the septum. While the development of LVH initially plays a protective role in response to increased wall stress to maintain adequate cardiac output, later it leads to the development of diastolic and, ultimately, systolic myocardial dysfunction.

Left atrial abnormalities

Frequently underappreciated, structural and functional changes of the left atrium (LA) are very common in patients with hypertension. The increased afterload imposed on the LA by the elevated LV end-diastolic pressure secondary to increased BP leads to impairment of the LA and LA appendage function plus increased LA size and thickness. Increased LA size accompanying hypertension in the absence of valvular heart disease or systolic dysfunction usually implies chronicity of hypertension and may correlate with the severity of LV diastolic dysfunction. In addition to these structural changes, these patients are predisposed to atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation, with loss of atrial contribution in the presence of diastolic dysfunction, may precipitate overt heart failure.

Valvular disease

Although valvular disease does not cause hypertensive heart disease, chronic and severe hypertension can cause aortic root dilatation, leading to significant aortic insufficiency. Some degree of hemodynamically insignificant aortic insufficiency is often found in patients with uncontrolled hypertension. An acute rise in BP may accentuate the degree of aortic insufficiency, with return to baseline when BP is better controlled. In addition to causing aortic regurgitation, hypertension is also thought to accelerate the process of aortic sclerosis and cause mitral regurgitation.

Heart failure

Heart failure is a common complication of chronically elevated BP. Patients with hypertension are either asymptomatic but at risk of developing of heart failure (stage A or B per ACC/AHA classification depending upon if they have developed structural heart disease as a consequence of hypertension) or have symptomatic heart failure (stage C or D per ACC/AHA classification). Hypertension as a cause of CHF is frequently underrecognized, partly because at the time heart failure develops, the dysfunctioning LV is unable to generate the high BP, thus obscuring the etiology of the heart failure. The prevalence of asymptomatic diastolic dysfunction in patients with hypertension and without LVH may be as high as 33%. Chronically elevated afterload and resulting LVH can adversely affect both the active early relaxation phase and late compliance phase of ventricular diastole.

Diastolic dysfunction is common in persons with hypertension. It is often, but not invariably, accompanied by LVH. In addition to elevated afterload, other factors that may contribute to the development of diastolic dysfunction include coexistent coronary artery disease, aging, systolic dysfunction, and structural abnormalities such as fibrosis and LVH. Asymptomatic systolic dysfunction usually follows. Later in the course of disease, the LVH fails to compensate by increasing cardiac output in the face of elevated BP and the left ventricular cavity begins to dilate to maintain cardiac output. As the disease enters the end stage, LV systolic function decreases further. This leads to further increases in activation of the neurohormonal and renin-angiotensin systems, leading to increases in salt and water retention and increased peripheral vasoconstriction, eventually overwhelming the already compromised LV and progressing to the stage of symptomatic systolic dysfunction.

Apoptosis, or programmed cell death, stimulated by myocyte hypertrophy and the imbalance between its stimulants and inhibitors, is considered to play an important part in the transition from compensated to decompensated stage. The patient may become symptomatic during the asymptomatic stages of the LV systolic or diastolic dysfunction, owing to changes in afterload conditions or to the presence of other insults to the myocardium (eg, ischemia, infarction). A sudden increase in BP can lead to acute pulmonary edema without necessarily changing the LV ejection fraction.3 Generally, development of asymptomatic or symptomatic LV dilatation or dysfunction heralds rapid deterioration in clinical status and markedly increased risk of death. In addition to LV dysfunction, right ventricular thickening and diastolic dysfunction also develop as results of septal thickening and LV dysfunction.

Myocardial ischemia

Patients with angina have a high prevalence of hypertension. Hypertension is an established risk factor for the development of coronary artery disease, almost doubling the risk. The development of ischemia in patients with hypertension is multifactorial.

Importantly, in patients with hypertension, angina can occur in the absence of epicardial coronary artery disease. The reason is 2-fold. Increased afterload secondary to hypertension leads to an increase in left ventricular wall tension and transmural pressure, compromising coronary blood flow during diastole. In addition, the microvasculature, beyond the epicardial coronary arteries, has been shown to be dysfunctional in patients with hypertension and it may be unable to compensate for increased metabolic and oxygen demand.

The development and progression of arteriosclerosis, the hallmark of coronary artery disease, is exacerbated in arteries subjected to chronically elevated BP. Shear stress associated with hypertension and the resulting endothelial dysfunction causes impairment in the synthesis and release of the potent vasodilator nitric oxide. A decreased nitric oxide level promotes the development and acceleration of arteriosclerosis and plaque formation. Morphologic features of the plaque are identical to those observed in patients without hypertension.


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