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Health | Fitness


February is the month when we think of matters of the heart and that isn’t just limited to cupid’s arrow. It’s also a great time to assess our heart health. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Every 25 seconds, one person in the United States will have a heart attack—that’s 1.1 million Americans each year. Roughly 460,000 of those heart attacks are fatal. The vast majority of these individuals never knew that they were at risk for heart disease.
I always try to educate my patients about the possible symptoms of a heart attack. Some heart attacks are sudden and intense. However, most heart attacks are subtle, with only mild discomfort. Common signs may include the following:
Chest discomfort. This is usually located in the center of the chest and lasts more than a few minutes. It can be an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or ache, and often gets worse with activity. There can be associated discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, or jaw.
Shortness of breath. This may occur with or without chest discomfort.
Miscellaneous signs. These may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, palpitations, or lightheadedness.
I think it’s also important to note that in recent years, the National Institutes of Health released research indicating women often experience different symptoms of heart attacks than men. Women may also experience these symptoms as long as a month before having a heart attack. The symptoms most often reported by women include unusual fatigue, sleep disturbance, shortness of breath, indigestion and anxiety.
What should I do if I am having a heart attack? Often people aren’t sure what’s wrong and wait too long before getting help. The American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute have launched the “Act in Time” campaign to increase people’s awareness of heart attack and the importance of calling 9–1–1 immediately at the onset of heart attack symptoms. The program also offers educational materials for both the public and health care professionals. (For more information on this program, visit www.nhlbi.nih.gov/actintime/index.htm).
What are the risk factors for heart disease? Traditionally, these include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, tobacco use, physical inactivity, and family history. We now know there are other conditions that also increase your risk of heart disease, such as sleep apnea, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney disease, erectile dysfunction, and peripheral artery disease.
What can I do to reduce my risk of heart attack? There are many lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of a heart attack. Strategies include the following:

  • Improve your eating habits. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Avoid foods high in fat, cholesterol, and salt.
  • Increase your physical activity. Start slowly and build up to at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise five or more days per week. Walking is a good place to start.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Check your blood pressure on a regular basis.
  • Check your cholesterol on a regular basis.

How do I know if I have heart disease? Fortunately, new tools allow us to detect heart disease at an early stage. By identifying heart disease at an early stage, we can make changes that will prevent future heart attacks and heart failure. Talk to your health care provider about screening and tests that are appropriate for you.
Here are some of the most common tests and procedures for assessing heart health:

  • Cholesterol test
  • Blood pressure screening
  • EKG (electrocardiogram)
  • Echo Stress Test
  • CT Scan (CAT Scan)

So as you celebrate Valentine’s Day, remember to focus on heart health. It could be the greatest gift you give the people you love.
Brent Wilson, MD, PhD, is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Utah and serves as medical director of University Hospital’s Cardiovascular Center. He received his medical degree and Ph.D. in genetics from Stanford University.

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