The Heart of the Matter
50% of fatal heart attacks are patients who had no overt symptoms or risk factors.
The Silent Killer. According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and accounts for approximately 800,000 deaths annually, or one out of every four deaths. On average, one person dies from cardiovascular disease every 40 seconds.
Only old men develop heart disease, right?
Many people have the perception that cardiovascular diseases such as strokes or heart attacks only happen to old, out-of-shape men who are out shoveling snow. To the contrary, 10% of men aged 45-54 have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, and the incidence increases to 21% in the 55-64 age group. And many men with cardiovascular disease have not been diagnosed due to a lack of available preventative diagnostic screenings for cardiovascular disease. Also, heart disease is the number one killer of women, taking more lives than all forms of cancer combined. While 1 in 31 deaths among American women are due to breast cancer each year, deaths from heart disease are 10 times more prevalent, at almost 1 in 3 deaths. Unfortunately, only 1 in 5 American women believe that heart disease is her greatest health threat.
I exercise regularly, I can’t have cardiovascular disease.
Even if you’re a yoga-loving, marathon-running, workout fiend, your risk for heart disease isn’t completely eliminated. Factors like cholesterol, eating habits, birth control pills, and smoking can counterbalance your other healthy habits. You may also have electrical abnormalities or a congenital (since birth) heart disease that you are not aware of that puts you at risk. More commonly, you may simply have a genetic predisposition towards early arteriosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries, and atherosclerosis, a plaque buildup inside your arteries, which can occlude blood flow over time.
But I don’t have any symptoms, how can I have cardiovascular disease?
Cardiovascular disease progresses slowly over decades, and in many people, it doesn’t become life-threatening until they’re in their 60s or 70s. It is normal for a hardening of the arteries to progress with age. For others, atherosclerosis may start in childhood and progress rapidly in their 30s and 40s, leading to early death. Unfortunately, few people will have symptoms of disease progression until the artery becomes severely narrowed, or a clot forms, blocking blood flow. In fact, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force does not consider a carotid artery stenosis to be clinically relevant until the artery is 60% to 99% occluded. Carotid stenosis is a narrowing of the carotid arteries, the two major arteries that carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the brain.
Can I find out if I have asymptomatic cardiovascular disease?
Specialized diagnostic centers take a proactive approach to asymptomatic cardiovascular disease by offering evaluations designed to pinpoint risk factors to cardiovascular health. These evaluations find early warning signs of cardiovascular disease that would otherwise go undetected through traditional wellness screening programs or annual physicals. These evaluations might include the standard blood tests that your physician might order but complement them with specialized testing designed to further get to the heart of the matter. The patient receives an individualized, easy-to-read report informing them of their risk factors so that they can take steps to reverse the disease progression and prevent the likelihood of a future cardiovascular event. These centers generally also have proprietary algorithms they have designed based on advanced medical research to better predict the patient’s overall risk.
But I feel healthy; why should I be concerned?
The benefit to detecting cardiovascular disease early is the same as it is for early detection of cancer: less invasive therapies, lower cost treatments, and better outcomes that lead to longer lives. While certainly not a new concept, the emphasis on taking preventative health measures has increased recently as diagnostic technology has improved and become less expensive. And most commercial insurance providers will pay for this type of screening.
Besides diagnostic testing, what can I do to improve my heart health?
Get moving! Besides smoking, a sedentary lifestyle is just about the worst thing for our heart health. Just getting some moderate activity like brisk walking for 30 minutes, 5 days a week, can do wonders for individuals who otherwise are getting no exercise. Staying consistent is key, so start slowly and try to increase a little bit each week.
Along with smoking cessation and exercise, improving your diet is another lever you can pull to improve your heart health. If you haven’t yet, go back and read our article on choosing the right cooking fat for you in this issue. Try to make sure to eat plenty of fresh vegetables and snack on fruit instead of processed foods. Cut out soda from your diet and you’ll be sure to start to see the pounds melt off your body!
Incorporating some strength training and core work can also help improve your heart health. You don’t need to be able to squat a house or bench press a Buick; simply do some bodyweight exercises like push-ups, wall sits, and planks to get yourself started. Strengthening your core will make everyday movements easier, which means you are more likely to move and improve your health