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February is American Heart Month

February is American Heart Month

To Prevent the Leading Cause of Death in the U.S. Start with Your Heart

Your family is important to you and you make every effort to take care of them. The same goes with your home—you’re sure to make any repairs necessary. What about your heart? Do you take the right steps to ensure its being taken care of? Probably not.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and is responsible for one of every four deaths in the country.

Men and Women Experience Heart Attacks Differently

Men typically exhibit shortness of breath, unusual fatigue, general weakness, dizziness, and a cold sweat. A study published in the American Journal of Critical Care in 2008 found that men reported more severe chest pain than women. Chest pain can come on fast or slow and last several minutes. Unfortunately, the majority of men wait as much as six hours after such symptoms arise to call an ambulance as discovered in a 2010 study from the Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing.

Women may also exhibit shortness of breath and unusual fatigue, but may also experience anxiety, severe indigestion, and sleep disturbance. The shortness of breath can be alarming. Many describe it as feeling like they’ve run a marathon without having taken a single step. Anxiety can come on suddenly—as if you’re having a panic attack for no reason at all. Some women describe upper back pressure that feels like squeezing or a rope being tied around them. Alarmingly, an Oregon study found that up to 95% of women experience early warning signals weeks or even months leading up to their cardiac event.

No matter your gender, if you experience any of these symptoms call 911. So often heart patients say they delayed calling for medical help because they didn’t want to look foolish if the indigestion they felt was simply heart burn. Many simply aren’t aware of the warning signs of a heart attack and just wait for the symptoms to go away. In particular, women don’t speak up when experiencing these symptoms because they don’t want to disturb others!

The providers at CCHC Heart and Vascular Specialists urge you to be aware of the basic heart attack symptoms—don’t wait for them to get worse. The earlier a patient receives medical assistance, the greater his or her chance of survival.

Reduce Your Risk: Know Your ABCS

How can you reduce your risk of heart attack? Start with your ABCS.

Ask about aspirin: Talk to your health care provider to see if taking an aspirin each day is right for you.

Blood pressure control: High blood pressure is one of the leading causes of heart disease. One in three adults suffer from high blood pressure—that’s approximately 70 million people. Unfortunately, less than half of those with high blood pressure have the condition under control. Work with your doctor to find out if you have high blood pressure. If you do, take steps to reduce it:

  • Get active by exercising for at least 30 minutes several days a week.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables and low in sodium, saturated and trans fats, and cholesterol.
  • Follow your health care provider’s instructions when it comes to taking medicines or measuring your blood pressure at home.

Cholesterol: High cholesterol affects one in three American adults. A simple blood test is the only way to know if you have high cholesterol. Your doctor can suggest steps to take to prevent high cholesterol or to reduce your levels if they are high.

Stop smoking: Cigarette smoking greatly increases your risk for heart disease. If you’re a smoker, quit as soon as possible, and if you don’t smoke, don’t start. Get help from 1-800-QUIT-NOW or Smokefree.gov.

Other Prevention Methods

In addition to knowing your ABCS, there are other steps you can take to greatly reduce your heart attack risk.

1. Take responsibility for your health. Cardiovascular disease is the major cause of death in America, accounting for 34% of deaths, many suddenly and almost all of them premature. This is down from 40% just four decades ago, mainly due to treatment of common risk factors. If you have diabetes, your risk increases dramatically. The best prevention against heart disease and stroke is to understand the risks and treatment options. The greatest risk is ignorance or misinformation. The first step is to take responsibility for your health.

  1. Know your risks. The most influential risk factor for cardiovascular disease is age—the older you are, the greater your risk. The second is your genetic make-up. Although everyone is excited by the scientific progress in genomics research, conclusive gene tests are still in their infancy. Instead, family history is the best marker for possible heart conditions. If your parents, grandparents, or other relatives were afflicted with or died of heart disease, diabetes, or stroke, your risk is much greater.
  2. Limit your calories. Fad diets do not work. If any of them did, we’d all be on THAT one, wouldn’t we? The obesity rate in Americans is alarming, contributing to a near epidemic of diabetes, which is a cardiovascular disease. If you have diabetes, your risk is the same as someone who already had a heart attack. Obesity is caused by consuming more calories than your body burns. Abdominal obesity is the major risk. Portion sizes and the amount of sugars in the American diet have dramatically increased over the past few decades. At the same time, the daily amount of exercise has been decreasing. It is good advice to “drink slim” (water, tea, or coffee). Use portion control before you start eating and push away from the table before you are “full.”
  3. Make exercise a daily habit. The lack of exercise is contributing to the obesity epidemic in Americans. Studies indicate that walking two miles a day is optimal for overall health, and those two miles of walking do not have to be done all at once. Exercise does more than burn calories; it also activates genes that are beneficial to health in other ways. Plus, exercise is one of the best treatments for depression and anxiety. However, exercise alone cannot control or reduce your weight—you must also modify your diet.
  4. Pick your pills wisely. There’s great interest in alternative medicine and understandably so, because patients want to be empowered to take responsibility for their own health. However, many take alternative medicines because of the way they are marketed. The mere fact that a substance is “natural” does not prove its health benefit. After all, nobody in their right mind would take arsenic simply because it is “natural.” It is important to know that research data are often lacking for alternative medications, supplements and vitamins, none of which are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The major risk with many alternative medications is that the patient thinks they’re doing something to improve health, when, in fact, they are not. Although some vitamins have been shown to possibly help some conditions, to date, none have been shown to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. A few rare exceptions exist, such as fish oils and niacin (vitamin B). It’s also important to note that high doses of some vitamins may interfere or counteract the beneficial effects of some prescription drugs.

  1. Reduce stress. Stress contributes to cardiovascular disease and, if severe, can cause a heart attack or sudden death. Plenty of options can reduce stress, such as regular exercise, adequate sleep, laughing, or volunteering. Watching TV generally does not relieve, but can aggravate stress. Also, try to avoid situations and people who make you anxious or angry.
  2. Stay informed: Science changes constantly. The only constant is change. This is especially true in medicine as new techniques and new insights develop constantly. Do not believe every piece of “scientific information” you find in the media or advertisements. An overwhelming number of research studies that make it into scientific publications are poorly designed or yield data that are not representative, e.g., due to a lack of a sufficient number of participants. Keep in mind that many studies are financed or sponsored by individuals or companies with a vested interest in gaining favorable results. The situation can be especially confusing when scientific studies yield different or even contradicting results, and this happens quite often.

It may not be at the top of most to-do lists, but caring for your heart through a healthy diet and regular physical activity is the secret weapon to preventing heart disease. While many may assume that popping a few pills that your healthcare provider prescribed is enough to quell symptoms or prevent a heart attack, the real preventative power lies with real changes to your lifestyle—changes that can reduce the risk for heart disease by as much as 80%.

For more information on keeping your heart healthy or to schedule an appointment to discuss any heart concerns you may have, contact the caring providers of CCHC Heart and Vascular Specialists at 252-63-HEART (634-3278).

(Sources: American Heart Association; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; University of Arizona; University of Iowa Health Care; and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)