As every February is American Heart Month, we should take a moment to consider our cardiovascular risks. Heart disease is responsible for one out of every four deaths in the United States to the tune of 2,200 every day. It is the leading cause of death for African Americans, Hispanics and whites. Those at greater risk of coronary heart disease are individuals with high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and smokers. For those with diabetes, the risk further significantly increases. Over half of our population has at least one of these health problems.
The most common form of heart disease is coronary artery disease. As cholesterol plaques build up in the arteries that serve the heart, the vessels narrow and blood supply diminishes. Sometimes producing chest pain or pressure, this angina may be the first indication that heart disease exists. Over time, this poor circulation may weaken the heart muscle leading to failure of the pump known as heart failure. Another outcome may cause irregularities of the heart rate or arrhythmia. The most common presentation, however, is that of a heart attack. Otherwise known as a myocardial infarction, the plaque formation causes a clot in the artery and blocks the vessel, damaging the heart muscle downstream of the blockage.
The best odds of survival from a heart attack are with early intervention. Knowing the signs and symptoms greatly improves the possible outcome of survival. Chest pain or pressure is a commonly recognized symptom, but pain in the neck, jaw, arms or shoulders, back or stomach may also be signs of heart attack. Some additional concerns include shortness of breath as well as nausea, cold sweats and lightheadedness. Most people are aware of chest pain being a sign of heart attack. Only about one in four, however, is aware of all the signs and knows to call 911 when someone is having an acute attack.
If you do not know your risks, you should take advantage of your health care annual wellness exam. This evaluation will measure blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Being overweight, poor diet, physical inactivity and smoking increases your risk. If you have a family history of heart disease, your risks are also increased. If you have known heart disease or are at great risk, additional studies may be warranted including chest x-ray or specific cardiac diagnostics.
If you have risk factors, be aggressive to treat and control your diseases. You can reduce your risk of coronary artery disease and heart attack with medications when appropriate to control blood pressure, cholesterol, poor circulation, irregular heartbeats as well as diabetes. The biggest challenge for most requires lifestyle changes including better eating habits, increasing physical activity and quitting tobacco. You are betting your life that you can do it, so don’t be a gambler.
Bradford Croft, DO
East Flagstaff Family Medicine