We’re a nation of troubled hearts.
We’re talking about our physical tickers today.
Heart disease kills more Americans than any other disease. Every 25 seconds, an American will have a “coronary event,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every 30 seconds, an American will die from heart disease, the American Heart Association tells us. If history repeats itself, 750,000 people will have a heart attack this year; for about two-thirds of those, it will be their first.
As much as 70 percent of heart disease can be prevented by controlling major risk factors, says Parin Parikh, an interventional cardiologist with Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.
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With February designated American Heart Month, we asked Parikh and other experts what they would like normal, everyday people like you and me to know about heart disease and how to prevent it. Here’s what they had to say:
1. Know your risk factors.
They may seem basic, but bear repeating: smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, poor diet, obesity and sedentary lifestyle, Parikh says. In addition, “other diseases seem to increase your risk of heart disease.” These include chronic kidney disease, HIV and such autoimmune diseases as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or psoriasis. Which leads to this:
2. Psoriasis patients have the same heart disease risk as people with diabetes.
Psoriasis, with its telltale signs of rough, red, itchy patches of skin, goes far deeper than cosmetics. It’s an inflammatory disease, and thus, can affect your entire body – including your heart.
“We know with people at any given age what coronary calcium you’re supposed to see or not see,” says Baylor University Medical Center cardiologist Jeffrey Schussler, who led a recent study on this. “A 40-year-old woman shouldn’t have any coronary artery calcium. Almost every 90-year-old man has a little or more.”
But in their research, “Middle-aged to younger ages who shouldn’t have a whole lot of plaque seemed to have more than their fair share,” he says. What made those stand out?
They all had psoriasis.
Says Baylor dermatologist and psoriasis expert Alan Menter: “What I’m telling patients now is ‘I want to get your skin better. I want to get your joints better. Improving your skin and joints hopefully will reduce the risk of cardiac artery disease.’ It’s a very sensitive issue.”
Chad McMinn, one of Dr. Menter’s patients, finds the psoriasis/heart disease link “interesting” and “scary,” but is channeling his concern in a positive way.
“When I left Dr. Menter’s office, I called my wife and said I’m going to schedule an appointment with a nutritionist,” says McMinn, 38.
3. Remember that no organ is an island.
That’s what Cooper Clinic cardiologist Nina Radford stresses to her patients and anyone else. “I have been in social settings where the topic of what I do – preventing heart disease – comes up,” she says. “I’ve had people respond that they are really not worried about heart disease because cancer runs in their family.”
But, she says, what they do to prevent heart disease can also help prevent cancer and other diseases. Win-win, eh?
4. Many risk factors can be reduced.
We can’t change our family history, Parikh says. But we can control what we put into our mouths (cigarettes, no; fruits and vegetables, yes). We can control how much we move our bodies. We can control how we deal with stress.
5. Pay attention to (but don’t obsess over) what you eat.
Obesity is a major contributor to heart disease. But despite conflicting and sometimes confusing advice out there on everything from cholesterol to gluten to sugar and salt, Parikh offers some basics on eating healthily: Limit red meat and saturated fats. Opt for more fish. Up your fruit and vegetable intake.
Also, just about every expert will tell you to limit processed foods; the more ingredients you see on a label, the more you should steer clear of it. Watch your portion sizes. Many restaurant servings (think spaghetti) are at least twice what’s considered a “normal” serving. Swap out soda for water; if you need the fizz, go for sugar-free carbonated water.
6. Rely on food, not supplements.
“Our bodies are designed to use food in its original, beautifully balanced form,” says Sarah Samaan, a cardiologist with Legacy Heart Center in Plano. “When you think about it, natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and olive and nut oils are really quite miraculous. When we take supplements, we are missing out on all the complementary nutrients, fiber, minerals, and antioxidants that make up the whole food.”
If your physician recommends a supplement, pay attention, of course, she adds. But remember that some supplements can be harmful in high doses. And along those lines …
7. Supplements alone cannot improve heart health.
That’s the word from Dr. Christie Ballantyne, professor of medicine and chief of the section of cardiology at Baylor College of Medicine, who says over-the-counter nutraceuticals or vitamins alone won’t do the trick.
8. Prescribed medication doesn’t eliminate risk of a heart attack.
This, too from Ballantyne, who says that taking prescriptions for your heart only means you’re working to lower your risk; heart attacks can still happen. Talk to your doctor to make sure you’re doing everything possible to guard against that.
9. Don’t be afraid of statins.
Unfortunately, Parikh says, this medication has “received a lot of negative attention in the press because of not very common side effects. However, statins remain very important in preventing and treating heart disease.”
That’s what exercise means, so don’t think running marathons – or running at all – is your only option. Exercise is is whatever YOU want to do, not whatever is the hot class at the gym or what your best friend swears by. So dance! Ride your unicycle! Leap onto a pogo stick! Walk!
“The evidence is overwhelming that exercise reduces the risk of heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure and other types of heart conditions,” says James de Lemos, a senior cardiologist at Parkland Health & Hospital System. “Even if the individual is overweight or obese, improving your fitness level markedly improves the prognosis and outcomes for people with heart disease.”
Strive for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. You can even break it up into three 10-minute segments.
11. Remember that heart attack symptoms are wide-ranging.
Most heart attacks begin with slow symptoms that increase gradually. Chest pain, for instance, may spread to the neck, jaw, or arm ,and be accompanies by nausea, shortness of breath, or vomiting.
12. If you’re a woman, symptoms may also include the following:
Severe, unexplained fatigue; pain or burning in the back, arm or even wrist; jaw pain, Samaan says. “Even the sensation of a tight bra band may be a symptom of a blocked artery.”
Parikh also cautions people with diabetes to watch for such symptoms.
13. Don’t hesitate to call 911.
The American Heart Association feels so strongly about this that they focused an entire ad campaign on the importance of seeking immediate help if you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms.
14. Follow through with rehab.
If you’ve had a heart attack, by all means do what you’re supposed to do afterward. That may sound obvious, but in the last 30 years, 80 percent of women didn’t, according to a study published in the journal Circulation and led by Laxmi Mehta, director of the Women’s Cardiovascular Health Program at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. The result? Increased rates of hospital readmission and increased deaths during the year after the cardiac episode.
15. Reduce stress.
Not always (or ever) easy, but stress can affect behaviors that can lead to heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. Maybe stress makes you overeat, drink too much or collapse on the couch. What to do when you’re feeling stressed? Go for a walk. Meditate. Call a friend. Take care of yourself.
16. You can pass a stress test and still have coronary artery disease.
“The test generally detects a heart blockage only when it is serious enough to limit the flow of blood through an artery,” Samaan says. “That usually means a 70 percent blockage or worse. So a normal stress test will not get you off the hook if you are wondering whether or not you are at future risk for heart disease.”
That’s why paying attention to your body and your symptoms, and letting your doctor know what’s happening, is imperative, she says.
17. Even if you think you’re healthy, you still need a physical.
We’ve all heard of people who ate right and exercised regularly but who ended up dropping dead of a heart attack. Annual checkups should include blood work, blood pressure tests and a basic discussion with your doctor about your family history and lifestyle to make absolutely certain your risk is as low as possible.