Heart disease holds the top spot for killing the most people in this country, and its grip remains rock solid. Every minute, it takes an American life, and it accounts for more than a quarter of Colorado’s deaths each year. Below, with the help of Dr. Eugene Sherman, a cardiologist with The Medical Center of Aurora, and Dr. Bryan Kramer, a vascular surgeon with Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center, we offer a snapshot of why doctors are so adamant in their screening and heart-healthy messages.
Screenings: Know your genes and your numbers
Genetics can play a strong role in developing heart disease, and you can’t give Mom and Pop back their genes. But having that family history can provide powerful incentive for a heart-healthy lifestyle. “I tell my patients all of the time: If you’ve been dealt the wrong cards, it’s your wake-up call to take care of yourself,” Sherman says. A high genetic risk is defined as having a first-degree relative (parents, full siblings, offspring) who had a heart attack before age 50 for men and before age 55 for women.
Having high levels of these lipids, or fatty substances, coursing through your veins is a little like grease and gunk invading your house’s plumbing. Eventually, something’s going to stop. People with total high cholesterol have double the risk of heart disease (Centers for Disease Control). “Cholesterol alters the lining of the blood vessels and causes plaque to form,” Sherman says. If you have other risk factors, your doctor might want your number to be lower, but in general, baby boomers should be tested annually and have a total number below 200 mg/dL.
That nurse with the tight-squeezing cuff performs a bigger role than it might seem. Of all first heart-attack victims, 69 percent have high blood pressure, and the number is 77 percent for first-time stroke victims (CDC). High blood pressure negatively alters the lining of the vessels. It commonly rises with age, and it is often called a silent killer. “You are not going to feel bad if your blood pressure is 145 over 95, but your risk will be many times higher,” Sherman says. In general, normal is considered 120/80 or lower, and baby boomers should be tested annually.
With the know-your-numbers’ rule, Hemoglobin A1C is the new kid on the block. Used to measure blood-sugar levels, the test has become the golden standard for diabetes screening. But doctors are increasingly learning about a link between high A1C numbers and heart disease. For now, the screening is routine for diabetics only, and their number to beat is generally 7, but all cases vary. For a non-diabetic, a preferred reading would be below 5.7.
Did you know?
A year after a smoker kicks the habit, risk of a heart attack drops to that of a nonsmoker. Dr. Eugene Sherman’s message: “It’s never too late to develop a healthy lifestyle.”
Lifestyle habits: They really matter
Snuff it out
“Smoking does so many bad things, we haven’t even discovered all of the bad things that it does yet,” Kramer says. When it comes to heart disease, smoking mainly destroys the lining of the vessels and causes them to harden. “Anyone with risk factors for heart disease can’t smoke, or their life will be significantly shortened.” Kramer has his patients use nicotine replacements until they can wean themselves off of those. “Nicotine’s not harmless, but it’s only one bad factor out of many in cigarettes.”
Pop these pills
Cholesterol medications called statins not only reduce your cholesterol and improve your lipid profile; they improve survivability, Kramer says. “They appear to have some sort of anti-inflammatory property that seems to stabilize blockages and make them less likely to rupture and travel to the heart or brain, causing a heart attack or stroke.” New guidelines were released in November recommending statins for a broader range of patients, including those with Type 2 diabetes between ages 40 and 75. Medications are also critical if you have otherwise-uncontrollable high-blood pressure.
Pump it up
With exercise, you train muscles (including the heart) to be more efficient, Kramer says. So the more you push yourself, the more efficient the muscles become; then the heart can do more with less. Kramer says patients don’t have to run a marathon; just walk the neighborhood. Exercise can lower stress, too, another factor behind heart disease. “And you’ll soon find that you just feel better,” Kramer says.
Cut the junk food
Eating healthy helps reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Kramer tells patients to take it one step at a time. Maybe substitute butter for olive oil first. Later, try another step. “You don’t have to go from eating pizza and donuts every day to eating nothing but rice cakes.” For healthy-eating tips, see www.healthonecares.com/nutrition_center.
Did you know?
Coronary Artery Disease is the most common form of heart disease and results from plaque buildup in the arteries, or arteriosclerosis. Once the buildup starves the heart or brain of oxygen, heart attacks and strokes result. Doctors have known that the process begins in childhood since the 1950s, when studies on Korean War trauma victims found arteriosclerosis in soldiers in their 20s.
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