With the President of the United States having proclaimed this month American Heart Month, it seems like a good time to focus on what we can do to keep ourselves and our older family members heart-healthy.
1. Watch for unusual symptoms.
Most men first realize they have heart problems when they experience pain or become short of breath. But for women, symptoms can be quite different, which is why heart disease is so often missed in women. A study of female heart attack survivors found that most remembered experiencing sleeplessness and unusual fatigue within the month before their heart attacks. And while it's not considered a classic risk factor, stress is now known to play a role in the onset of heart disease.
2. Schedule a physical and discuss any symptoms with your doctor.
Make sure you tell the doctor if your family has any history of heart disease, high blood pressure, heart attack, or stroke. Women may need to be particularly proactive; some doctors were trained when heart disease wasn't a woman's issue, so they don't know what to look for in women and may overlook your symptoms.
3. Get your cholesterol checked.
Normal for total cholesterol is under 200; if your cholesterol is above 200, it's time to look at lifestyle changes and probably to take a cholesterol-lowering statin drug. Statins are considered so beneficial for most of the population that some doctors only half-jokingly suggest that we should put them in our water. Statins are available only by prescription, and can be expensive, but they're lifesavers. Today most doctors screen for good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol levels as well. And many experts believe raising HDL through exercise and other lifestyle changes is as important -- or more important -- than lowering LDL.
4. Ask about additional blood tests.
Newer tests, such as Homocystene and C-Reactive Protein, hold great promise for identifying heart disease risk, but aren't yet widely in use. However, if the results of your cholesterol screening are inconclusive or your family history suggests you're at risk for Metabolic Syndrome, talk to the doctor about getting these tests.
5. If you're experiencing symptoms, get checked.
An EKG (electrocardiogram), which evaluates heart rhythm, is a much simpler test than most people realize. It's the first step in checking for arrhythmia, blocked arteries, and other issues. If an EKG is abnormal, the next step is a stress test with ultrasound. Stress tests are more expensive but also provide more information. If a stress test indicates a problem, the next step is probably cardiac catheterization, which is highly reliable but invasive. For this, the doctor places a tiny slit in the artery in your upper leg, inserts a catheter into the artery, and pumps in dye to watch the blood flow via a special screen. This is done under anesthesia but is usually an outpatient procedure.
The take-home message is that heart health is worth taking seriously. And we're the ones who know our bodies best. So if something doesn't feel right, either for you or a loved one, make the call, get those tests, and get started on the road to treatment. What better way to honor American Heart Month?