SPRINGFIELD — Do you know if your heart is healthy? You should.
Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for Americans. About 659,000 people in the United States die from heart disease each year — that’s one in every four deaths.
February is American Heart Month — a time to shine a spotlight on heart disease, the number one killer of Americans, when all people can focus on their cardiovascular health and address their risk factors for the disease.
Heart disease often develops over time, and you may have early signs or symptoms long before you have serious heart problems. Early warning signs cold include chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing, swelling in the legs, ankles or feet, fatigue, and a fast or uneven heartbeat known as palpitations.
“You know your body better than anyone else. It is important to look out for changes in how you feel. For example, someone who can climb a flight of stairs with ease and now must stop to catch their breath halfway up, or developing chest pain or pressure during some activities, those are signs of possible heart disease that you need to get checked out by your doctor,” said cardiologist Dr. Sabeen Chaudry of the Heart & Vascular Program at Baystate Health.
She noted published research by a cardiologist in Spain reported that “climbing four flights of stairs in less than a minute indicates good heart health.” Another marker is the Cooper “12 Minute Run/Walk Test,” which measures how far a person can cover (run, walk, jog) in 12 minutes and rates your difficulty in breathing as a marker of endurance as it ties into your heart health, and which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
One of the most important things your doctor will check during a routine exam, and that you can check yourself with a home monitor, is your blood pressure, noted the heart specialist. High blood pressure can damage your arteries by making them less elastic, which decreases the flow of blood and oxygen to your heart and leads to heart disease. In addition, decreased blood flow to the heart can cause chest pain called angina.
Chaudry noted the advent of wearable devices such as the Apple Watch and Fitbit can measure your heart rate and even set off an alert for irregularities that the wearer might need to seek professional help.
“A normal resting heart rate as a measure of health for most adults is anywhere between 60 and 100 beats per minute,” said Chaudry.
There are also a number of EKG devices on the market today that can check your heart if you are feeling the symptoms of an irregular heart rhythm.
“While these devices can be helpful in identifying heart rhythm changes, especially if you are having symptoms of palpitations or your heart is racing or skipping a beat, they cannot identify if you are having a heart attack,” said Chaudry.
Whether at home, on vacation, or just out and about, you should be able to recognize the signs of a heart attack should one strike. However, according to a 2019 study presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions, nearly 6% of survey respondents — representing over 13.5 million adults in the United States — were not aware of any heart attack symptoms.
Signs of a heart attack in men and women include chest pain (angina) and shortness of breath. However, Chaudry noted there can be some difference in symptoms between men and women who are having a heart attack.
“Women are more likely than men to experience nausea, unexplained tiredness, and shoulder or jaw pain,” she said.
There are also many things you can do on your own to address risk factors for heart disease — almost half of all Americans have at least one of three key risk factors for heart disease, which include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking.
“You can keep your blood pressure in check by reducing the amount of salt in your diet, exercising regularly, watching your waistline and eating a healthy diet. While high cholesterol can in some cases be genetic, you can reduce your chances of developing this heart risk by eating more healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans and limiting your fat intake and eating more plant sources of protein, and exercising regularly. Avoid tobacco at all costs and don’t smoke or be around smokers whose second-hand smoke can be harmful to you,” said Chaudry.
Additionally, she noted that the American College of Cardiology recommends 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise a week to maintain heart health. Also, the CDC reports that quitting smoking after a diagnosis of heart disease reduces the risk of premature death, reduces the risk of death from heart disease, and reduces the risk of having a first heart attack or another heart attack.
“Also, if you have diabetes, you will want to work with your doctor to maintain healthy blood sugars,” said Chaudry. “High blood sugar can damage blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart.
“Discussing your risks for heart disease with your doctor is important during a well-visit,” she went on. “Your doctor can best assess your risks for heart disease, order diagnostic tests if needed, and develop a plan with you to maintain good heart health.”
Diagnostic tests could include blood tests, cardiac CT scan, cardiac MRI, cardiac catheterization, coronary angiography, echocardiography, stress testing, electrocardiogram and others.
You can test you heart disease knowledge by visiting baystatehealth.org/heart to take a CDC quiz on heart. Also, there are many free and easy online heart risk assessments you can take to determine your heart health such as the Reynolds Risk Score.
To learn more about Baystate’s life-saving cardiac capabilities, visit baystatehealth.org/heart.