Many dismiss the importance of regular check-ups because they feel fine and don’t have noticeable risk factors of heart disease like smoking or being overweight. Waiting until you feel symptoms may be too late. Each year in the U.S., over 1 million people have heart attacks, almost half result in death. Don’t make the mistake we did, catch heart disease early and avoid what might be lurking in the shadows.
A few weeks ago while jogging, my husband felt fullness/pressure in his chest and tightness in his arm, as though he had been lifting weights. He stopped, the feeling subsided, but he decided to get a check-up before resuming exercise. The doctor did an EKG (which was normal), drew blood, and recommended he see a cardiologist for a stress test. Days later while on a walk, he felt the tightness again, though sitting and leaning forward seemed to relieve it. The lack of any other classic heart attack symptoms made it difficult to be certain what was really going on.
Within two hours of arriving at the hospital, he was headed to the cath lab, the cardiologist explaining the probability of putting stents in his heart. We were stunned. Matt was a healthy guy, we eat right most of the time, he is not overweight, no high blood pressure or health problems. However, he did have a blockage that required two stents. Additionally, during the procedure he went into cardiac arrest. (Blessing: if you are going to have a heart attack, he was in the perfect place.) The cardiologist later explained that had he gone down with a heart attack earlier, he would not have gotten back up again. It was staggering news, to say the least, a significant wake-up call to take heart health more seriously.
Matt is 51, 6′ tall, 178 lbs, non-smoker, normal blood pressure, no other health issues. His brother, a life-long smoker, had a heart attack in his forties. We lead an active lifestyle, hiking during the summer months and occasionally doing The Incline. Matt’s cholesterol was 224; not at an alarming number, but something we would have paid attention to had we known. The point is, this is not a high-risk profile for heart disease, yet the heart attack came anyway.
February is American Heart Month; for us, it will always be September. It is tempting to ignore what isn’t urgent, believing there will always be time to get a check-up later. Because he did not have other health issues, Matt had not seen a doctor in almost 7 years, which means he had not checked his cholesterol either. If you have not had a check-up in awhile, do not wait for February to be reminded-or worse yet, have it be too late-schedule an appointment now. Heart disease is a silent killer, often showing up without any prior symptoms and is the leading cause of death for both men and women.
Nearly every woman I know has worn a pink ribbon to raise awareness about breast cancer, with good reason. However, deaths from all cancers in the U.S. are half as common as deaths from cardiovascular disease. According to the Women’s Heart Foundation, deaths from cardiovascular diseases in women exceed the total number of deaths caused by the next 16 causes, but only 31% of women know that CVD is the leading cause of death.
Ladies, it’s time to Go Red. In 2004, the American Heart Association was challenged to raise awareness among women of their risk of cardiovascular disease, which claimed the lives of nearly 500,000 American women each year. In an effort to save lives, the AHA created Go Red For Women – a passionate, emotional, social initiative designed to empower women to take charge of their heart health.
Understanding and Reducing Risks:
Anyone who has even glanced at risk factors knows that smoking, excess body weight and high blood pressure increase the risk of heart disease. Unfortunately, the absence of these well-known risks can leave us believing we have no need for concern. The following is a list of additional risk factors we have become acutely aware of through our experience. Hopefully this information will serve as forewarning for someone otherwise ignoring potentially dangerous risks in their own life.
1. Schedule a physical and ask for the following tests: These tests provide a more accurate picture of cholesterol, as well as the degree of inflammation as a factor in overall risk. It is best to begin checking cholesterol after age 20, at least once every five years. Men over 45 and women over 55 should have cholesterol checked more frequently.
VAP Cholesterol Test: Most people know to get their cholesterol checked as part of evaluating their risk factors for cardiovascular disease. The focus used to be on total cholesterol to assess risk. Further research has brought to light the benefits of more precise testing which differentiates between HDL, LDL, Triglycerides, VLDL’s, as well as Lp(a). Lp(a) is a strong indicator of increased risk of heart disease.
hs-CRP Test (High-sensitivity C-reactive protein): C-reactive protein (CRP) is a marker of inflammation in the arteries. C-reactive protein (CRP) is one of the proteins that increase during systemic inflammation. Laboratory evidence and findings from clinical and population studies suggest that inflammation is the underlying cause of the build-up of plaque in the arteries.
Homocysteine Test: An elevated homocysteine level is considered an independent risk factor for heart disease. This test is still relatively expensive, is not widely available, and rarely covered by insurance. Although the American Heart Association has not established a direct relationship between homocysteine levels and heart attacks, they do suggest screening may be appropriate for those with a family history of heart disease, but none of the risk factors themselves.
2. Exercise regularly. Exercise at least 30 minutes 4 to 6 times a week. An active life-style of hiking or recreational activity does wonders for overall health and well-being, but lack of regular exercise is a risk factor for heart disease. If it has been awhile since you’ve tied up the laces on a pair of gym shoes, seek medical advice before starting any exercise program.
3. Reduce stress. “While people know stress plays a role in how they feel physically, they’re often unaware that it is a risk factor for heart disease,” says Suzanne Steinbaum, MD, an attending cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Stress increases inflammation in the body triggering a higher production of cholesterol in the liver. Managing stress is a crucial component in reducing risk.
4. Eat for life. Food can be a source of life-giving nutrients or a catalyst for disease. Frequent travel, dining out, or relying on comfort food for stress management will sidetrack the very best of intentions. As I mentioned before, we ate right most of the time, or so we thought. When we take an honest look at the compromises we had made, it is easy to see how convenience foods lured us back into old habits and poor choices. Convenience foods, which are loaded with refined oils, flour, and sugar, are only convenient until they cost you your health. There is no shortage of heart healthy diets promoted in the marketplace. Discerning all the information requires great scrutiny and research. For us, we have returned to The Maker’s Diet with renewed diligence in our diet.
5. Know the warning signs. Timing is crucial to surviving a heart attack and avoiding permanent damage to the heart. Of the people who die from heart attacks, about half die within an hour of the first symptoms and before they reach the hospital. If you suspect one of the symptoms, do not hesitate to seek medical help, the life you save might be your own.
- Discomfort, pressure, heaviness, or pain in the chest, arm, or below the breastbone
- Discomfort radiating to the back, jaw, throat, or arm
- Fullness, indigestion, or choking feeling (may feel like heartburn)
- Sweating, nausea, vomiting, or dizziness
- Extreme weakness, anxiety, or shortness of breath
- Rapid or irregular heartbeats
Check out the latest CVD facts for both men and women here: http://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm
Additional Reading and Resources: