February may be American Heart Month, but it is important to be aware of heart health all year long. During the pandemic, many people may have delayed or postponed heart screenings, which can negatively impact their health. Nearly a quarter of deaths in the United States are caused by heart disease. Although this is a staggering statistic, heart disease is often preventable with lifestyle modifications and medicines.
There are key factors that impact heart health that everyone should be aware of to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system. Risk factors are conditions that heighten your risk of heart attack, stroke and death. Some, like aging and genetics, can’t be controlled, but others can:
- Elevated blood pressure, or hypertension, is sometimes referred to as a silent killer because it doesn’t cause symptoms and accounts for most cardiovascular deaths because of its prevalence.
- Cholesterol levels, especially LDL — the bad cholesterol — can play a key role in buildup of plaque and blockages inside our blood vessels, increasing the risk of stroke and heart attack. About one third of US adults have a high LDL level (>130mg/dl). When it comes to cholesterol and blood pressure, lower is better.
- Diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease that is heavily influenced by lifestyle. About 12% of adults in the U.S. are diabetic, and an alarming 30% are pre-diabetic. Aggressive control of blood pressure and cholesterol is especially important in diabetics.
- Smoking is a leading preventable cause of disease, disability and death (cardiac and otherwise) in the U.S. Almost one third of coronary deaths are related to smoking and second-hand exposure.
One of the most important ways to prevent heart disease is to control your risk factors and adopt a healthy lifestyle throughout life.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Being proactive about your heart health is the best way to prevent and manage heart disease,” said Dr. Rony Shammas, interventional cardiologist and hypertension specialist for Vidant Health. “Plaque buildup in the blood vessels starts early on in life, even in our teens, so it is important to address your risk factors and adopt a healthy lifestyle as soon as you can.”
Positive changes in lifestyle that make an impact on heart health include:
- Diet: Eating a well-balanced diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole-grains, and low in salt, saturated and trans fats, red meat and sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages promotes good heart health.
- Exercise (Physical Activity): The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise. Almost half of adults do not meet the minimum recommendations for exercise. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise (i.e., brisk walking).
- Limit alcohol: If you don’t drink, don’t start. Otherwise, keep it to a minimum and don’t exceed one drink a day if you are a woman and two drinks a day for men ( 1 drink= 12oz beer, 5oz wine or 1.5 oz liquor)
- Managing stress: Some stress is good, but excessive stress can be damaging to the body. Breathing techniques, meditation, owning a pet and practicing yoga can help deal with stress.
Depending on your particular risk profile, your health care provider will decide if there is a need for medication to treat blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes alongside lifestyle changes. If your doctor recommends medication, make sure you take it as prescribed.
Dr. Shammas advises that if you or a loved one suspect you may be having a heart attack or stroke, call 911. Immediate intervention can save your life and reduce your risk of disability. On the other hand, If you are having less acute but concerning symptoms seek medical attention early. After listening to your story and performing an exam, your doctor may order one of several diagnostic tests to decide if your symptoms are related to heart disease.
“Everybody wants to stay off my operating table, and these tips are key for heart disease prevention and helping minimize harmful conditions,” said Dr. Michael Bates, chief and clinical professor of cardiothoracic surgery at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University and ECU Health Medical Center.
When someone is experiencing concerning symptoms, it is key to seek medical attention early. Patients are offered several diagnostic tests when they report symptoms like severe chest pains.
Noninvasive tests can be performed early in a patient’s heart history to look for signs of heart issues. Some of these include a stress test, an exercise stress test performed on a treadmill, which shows how your heart works during physical activity. During this time, your heart rate, blood pressure and the heart’s electrical signals will be monitored. Other noninvasive tests include an echocardiogram, which checks how the heart chambers and valves are pumping blood through your heart.
If heart surgery is needed, today’s advancement in surgical treatments have resulted in less invasive procedures and much faster recovery time than even ten years ago. Some surgeries can be performed through smaller incisions in the body with cameras. Robotic surgery also helps to make less invasive surgeries possible.
There are several less invasive surgeries for the heart. Bypasses can now be performed with assistance from robotic surgery through a smaller incision in the body. Cardiac catheterizations are used to repair the heart valves without making an incision in the chest cavity; instead, the procedure can be performed through arteries and veins.
“Bringing Vidant Health and the Brody School of Medicine together as Vidant Health will continue to extend our mission as a leader in rural health care,” Dr. Bates said. “This collaboration of excellence and combined resources will create even more advancements in our work in cardiac and vascular care.”
Dr. Shammas believes eastern North Carolina’s future is bright because of the outlook for Vidant Health.
“Ultimately, our hope is to make hearts healthier throughout the region and moving forward as Vidant Health strengthens our commitment and mission to bring the best in research and care to the communities we call home,” he said.
One of the most important things you can do for your heart health is to see your provider for screenings and check-ups, which are key to preventing problems before they arise. For more information about cardiovascular resources at Vidant Health, including treatments and technologies, visit www.ecuhealth.org and the Heart & Vascular Care section of the website.