A Heart to Heart about Heart Disease

Feb 17, 2016

February is “American Heart Month,” and in an ironic twist, last week I learned that a friend of mine had a heart attack. My jaw dropped upon hearing the news. Not only because he just turned 45, but also because this is a guy who runs three to four miles a day, eats healthfully, doesn’t smoke, barely drinks, manages his stress, and is one of the healthiest (and nicest) people I know.

The National Institute of Health lists the following criteria as risk factors for heart disease:

  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Diabetes and prediabetes
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Being physically inactive
  • Having a family history of early heart disease (defined as 55 or younger for male first-degree relatives, and 65 or younger for female first-degree relatives)
  • Having a history of preeclampsia during pregnancy
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Age (45+ for men, 55+ for women),

For my friend, a weak 2.5 risk factors applied. 2.5 you ask? Well, there is a family history of heart disease, but it wasn’t considered “early” since his father was in his 60s at the time. He is 45, but his birthday was only months prior. In addition, while his cholesterol was over 200 (mid-200s) at his last physical, his doctor dismissed it because he’s an overall healthy person.

Source: Block Scientific

The older I get, the more life confuses me at times. The math doesn’t add up. But I always ponder, What’s the takeaway from this? How can I process this and help others? In this instance, two takeaways have hit me to to the core.1. Heart disease can, and does, affect anyone and everyone. It’s the leading cause of death for men and women, not just in the United States, but worldwide. There is no cross-section of people who it doesn’t affect. Every year heart disease kills more men and women than all cancers combined. There’s a reason why our schools spend time in February sponsoring “Jump Rope for Heart”: it’s not about the plastic ducks or dogs that the kids get, it’s about the education. Heart disease affects everyone. Even the seemingly healthy.2. Heart disease is cunning. Featured on PBS, The Hidden Epidemic: Heart Disease In America states, “More than half of all people who die of heart disease succumb suddenly without warning—and the other half have the disease lurking in their bodies for many years before it strikes.” This is a disease that you have to be educated on and vigilant about monitoring, especially if you have one of the risk factors listed above.

So what can you do to help yourselves and those you love?

Montague Bikes
Source: Montague Bikes
  • Learn about heart disease. In the spirit of full-disclosure, I’ve never been one to pay attention to heart disease. Diabetes was our big familial disease, so I naively believed heart disease didn’t apply to me...until it crept into my life. Not only were my friends directly suffering from it (which happens more as you get older), but I, myself have a diagnosis of pre-diabetes (as a “healthy” person), and I'm married to a man who has a family history of heart disease. Suddenly, I paid attention. For myself, for my husband, and for our kids. I urge you to read about the risk factors and symptoms of this silent killer.
  • Be proactive about your health. The very first step is to get annual labs to monitor your overall health. These will provide a baseline and will guide your healthcare. If you see something in your lab work that seems odd to you, especially if you have a family history of a specific disease, please take these peculiarities seriously. In terms of heart disease, there are a multitude of numbers to consider: blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose, to name a few. If you know that you smoke, aren’t eating well, and/or aren’t exercising, be honest with yourself and your doctor. You don’t have to fear a major life overhaul; sometimes small changes yield amazing results and really impact your overall health and risk profile.
  • Be mindful of your health and listen to your body. Know your risk factors and be vigilant about your numbers, but also be mindful of how you are feeling. If something just doesn’t seem right, or if your gut is saying, I don’t know about this, please listen. I used to think a heart attack occurred quickly, but that’s not always the case. Some do, but most have warning signs that can start days before the actual heart attack. Your body is smart; respect it and listen when it is telling you something. If you aren’t one to seek medical attention, reconsider. Even if you are wrong, it is always better to err on the side of caution when it comes to your health. A heart attack is not forgiving of your unwillingness to seek medical attention for any reason.
  • Know the symptoms of heart attack. Heart disease presents itself in different ways, which is why listening to your body is critical. Many heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts longer than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like:
  • Uncomfortable pressure
  • Squeezing
  • Fullness
  • Stabbing pain

Not all heart attacks are preceded by chest pain.

Heart attack symptoms include:

  • Chest discomfort
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body: one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort
  • Pounding heart or changes in heart rhythm
  • Heartburn, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

Symptoms more common in women, but not exclusive to women (may occur without chest pain):

  • Sudden onset of weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea, vomiting, indigestion
  • Body aches
  • Overall feeling of illness
  • Unusual feeling or mild discomfort in the back, chest, arm, neck or jaw (remember, these may occur without chest pain and still be a heart attack)
  • Sleep disturbance

The above list is not exhaustive. My friend had lung pain on Wednesday (like he smoked a pack of cigarettes), was fine Thursday and Friday, tried to run a few miles on Saturday (and couldn’t), felt some chest and left-side pains (but didn’t consider it serious since the pains went away), got some more chest pain on Sunday, then on Monday realized that he was actually having a heart attack. Thankfully, he is okay, and is resuming his life, version 2.0 (with new awareness, new guidelines, and, I’m assuming, new appreciations).

Heart disease does not have to be a given in life, even if you have identified risk factors. By educating yourself on the warning signs and symptoms and committing to a few simple changes, it can be prevented and/or reversed. And that is news that should speak to your heart!


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