February is American Heart Month, which makes it the perfect opportunity to raise awareness about treating and preventing heart disease. There’s a misconception that the only people at risk are older adults. The truth is that anyone can be at risk for heart disease, even those who think they’re in the clear. The good news is that there are things that can be done to prevent, and even reverse, symptoms of heart disease. It’s just a matter of knowing what those things are. Here are seven things you need to know about heart disease:
- Heart disease is very common. There are millions of people in the United States with heart disease because it encompasses so many different abnormalities of the heart itself, including the heart muscle, valves within the heart, heart arteries, and the electrical system of the heart. However, it’s even more common than people think because many don’t even realize they have it.
- Symptoms may not be what you think. Symptoms of heart disease come in many forms, which is exactly why some people don’t realize they have it. Everyone is familiar with the chest pain that radiates into the left arm. But symptoms can also be unusual, and be present much earlier than people realize, which leads to them being ignored. For example, jaw pain can be a cardiac symptom. Even just a general “weird” feeling can mean that something is wrong. Some people come to the emergency room with very nonspecific symptoms that are different from anything they’ve experienced before. Or they’ll have some vague discomfort in the chest, or some uneasy feeling that something isn’t right. Sometimes that feeling is just enough to tip them off that something’s wrong.
Interestingly, we’ve seen plenty of people come in with large heart attacks and rather subtle symptoms. It’s very possible for patients to have episodes of exertional chest discomfort for a very long time and not know what that is. If this is something you’re experiencing, it’s important to pay attention to your body and get medical attention. Early intervention can save lives. The quicker an artery is opened up, the better the patients do, and the better the chance of survival with less heart damage.
- Catch it early. This ties in with the last point. Knowing that symptoms can be unusual is a good reason to regularly check cholesterol and blood pressure. Ideally, checks should start as a teenager so there’s a baseline to compare numbers to as someone ages. Seeking early medical attention for any suspected cardiac symptoms may be very beneficial in identifying what the problem is, and allowing a cardiologist to treat the problem before it becomes worse.
- Don’t drive yourself to the hospital. Heart attacks frequently result in very dangerous arrhythmias, or abnormal heart rhythms. Calling 911 and having an ambulance bring you to the hospital is the safest way to treat an arrhythmia, should it occur. The paramedics in the ambulance are extremely skilled at identifying heart attacks and treating the complications en route to the hospital. Arrhythmias can cause death within minutes, so if you were to develop one while you were driving yourself, there would be no one there to treat it and the result could be fatal.
- Quit smoking. Smoking is a huge risk factor for developing heart disease because smokers deposit plaque in heart arteries much more readily than the rest of us. This is why smokers, even young smokers, are much more prone to heart attacks and developing blocked heart arteries. And it’s not just smokers themselves at risk. There are thousands of cases each year of people developing heart disease from secondhand smoke. If there’s anything you can do for yourself AND others, it’s quitting smoking, as this is one of the most preventable causes of heart disease.
- Exercise and eat a low-fat diet. This advice in itself may not be a surprise, but often people are surprised by the risk-reducing results just from doing these two things. Diet is very important, both in preventing the development of blocked heart arteries, and also in treating patients who already have this problem. A diet low in saturated fat, trans fats, sugar, and cholesterol is critically important in helping prevent heart disease. We also know that exercise, even in moderation, does help prevent the development of heart disease. It also lowers LDL, or bad cholesterol, and it does so incrementally, which means the more exercise you do, the greater the risk-reduction of heart disease.
- There have been amazing advances in treatment. Many of the things that required open heart surgery in the past can now be treated with less invasive procedures. This results in a much faster recovery where patients are able to go back to normal activity much more quickly. Patients who have been treated with stents or surgery are referred to cardiac rehab, which is both an exercise and educational program. Patients learn how to exercise safely, and learn about diet and lifestyle changes that are important in preventing the development of heart disease going forward.
Living a healthy lifestyle and doing routine checkups are two of the best ways to prevent or manage heart disease. If you’ve been experiencing symptoms that you think could be related to your heart, it’s wise to speak with your doctor or cardiologist. With today’s technology, almost any problem of the heart can be treated in some fashion, especially if you’re in tune with your body and seek help early.