Preventative Care and Early Diagnosis: The Keys to Combating Heart Disease
Heart disease continues to be one of the most deadly, and most preventable, diseases affecting us today. Globally, 17.7 million people die of cardiovascular diseases each year.1 practicing prevention and working with a cardiologist for early diagnosis and treatment can dramatically improve these outcomes.
Cardiovascular diseases (CVD) are diseases of the circulatory system, which includes the heart and blood vessels. There are many effective preventative steps and early treatments available, and yet only a year ago the American Heart Association issued an urgent call to action to heart doctors and cardiovascular surgeons nationwide seeking to improve access to cardiovascular care.2 According to these health care experts, we should be doing much more to protect our heart health.
What can we do to take full advantage of the early prevention, diagnosis, and treatments that can reduce our risk of developing heart disease and identify the early signs of developing CVD? Let’s talk about planning a proactive approach to all stages of heart disease, what steps you can take now to improve your cardiovascular health and how you can participate fully in successful treatment should you need it.
What Is Heart Disease?
When we talk about heart disease or CVD, we refer to a group of diseases, including:
- Coronary artery disease which affects affect blood vessels to the heart
- Cerebrovascular disease which affects blood vessels in the brain
- Peripheral artery disease which affects blood vessels elsewhere in the body
- Congenital heart disease which is usually present from birth
Taking a Proactive Approach to Heart Disease
Medical professionals define three stages of preventative care for heart disease. These stages cover a full range of actions you and your heart doctor can take to reduce your risks, diagnose conditions earlier, and treat identified problems quickly and effectively.
1. Primary Prevention of Heart Disease
Prevention is the first and earliest course of action for most of us. Primary prevention means to change risk factors you can control to avoid developing heart disease in the first place. When you work with your primary care provider you can make changes to your lifestyle and decrease your chances of suffering from a heart attack or stroke and developing heart disease.
There are many recommended lifestyle changes we will discuss, but the purpose of these measures is usually to:3
- Prevent inflammation and lower blood pressure.
- Reduce cholesterol levels and excess weight.
- Treat diabetes or other conditions that put the heart at risk.
- Stop damage to the heart and blood vessels from controllable causes.
2. Secondary Prevention of Heart Disease
Secondary prevention seeks to address or treat problems before they do critical permanent damage to the heart or blood vessels. Some risk factors are either completely outside our control or would be very difficult to change. By diagnosing and treating people with these risk factors early, doctors can work with patients to prevent a first or second cardiac event.
By having an established relationship with the patient, doctors can understand their family history and environment to take proactive steps in the early management of identified risks. Using markers like age, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels, as many as 80% of heart disease cases can be identified early.1
Treatments often used in this phase of prevention include:1
- Calcium channel or beta-blockers to lower blood pressure
- An aspirin or another blood-thinning regimen
- Statin treatment or another medication to reduce blood lipids (cholesterol)
3. Tertiary Prevention for Heart Disease
When heart disease is diagnosed later, or early treatment does not show good improvement for those diagnosed with CVD, then more intensive treatments may be needed to treat the disease, manage symptoms, and reduce the risk of a second heart attack or stroke. Procedures which a heart surgeon may perform to prevent further damage to tissues or progression of the disease include:1
- Heart bypass surgery which replaces a section of blocked vein or artery
- Coronary angioplasty which reduces or removes the blockage in an existing blood vessel
- Insertion of defibrillators, stents, or pacemakers, which work to regulate normal heart function
Steps You Can Take Now to Improve Your Heart Health
By taking care of yourself and working closely with your cardiologist, you can improve all the markers of heart health and take the earliest possible steps to combat heart disease. Being proactive about your self-care and your healthcare can have a major impact on how you feel, and has been shown to improve outcomes in meeting treatment goals.4
Some of the best tips for preventing heart disease or treating it effectively are:
- Reducing your blood pressure. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a serious risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. Most people should be aiming for a blood pressure lower than 120/80 mmHg.5
- Lowering your cholesterol. Managing healthy and unhealthy fats (lipids) in the blood is an important part of maintaining clear and well-functioning arteries. Your total blood cholesterol is a measurement of three factors:6
- LDL (low-density lipoprotein), which is the “bad” cholesterol and is best kept at a lower ratio, although specific target numbers can be very individualized based on the ratio of fats in the blood. Diet has a clear effect on LDL cholesterol levels.
- HDL (high-density lipoprotein), which is the “good” cholesterol. Higher levels of HDL are considered good for heart health. Having Type 2 diabetes, a lack of exercise, being overweight, and smoking are associated with having low levels of HDL.
- Triglycerides, which are the most common fats in the body. 20% of your triglyceride level is measured as part of total cholesterol. High levels of triglycerides are associated with the buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries (atherosclerosis), which increase the risk of stroke or heart attack.
- Taking heart medications as prescribed. Following the recommended medication schedule your cardiovascular surgeon or heart doctor provides is very important to avoid drug interactions and manage these critical factors.
Lifestyle Changes to Combat Heart Disease
So often, those who make positive lifestyle changes report feeling better. Almost no one returns to their doctor or heart surgeon to report that eating better and exercising more have made them feel worse.
So, while you may have heard these recommendations before, these are some of the best ways to practice primary or secondary prevention by doing all you can to stay healthy and support your cardiovascular system:8
- See a doctor for regular wellness visits. When you’re feeling healthy it’s a perfect time to meet with your doctor and establish a baseline. Health screenings can identify early signs of disease or genetic risk factors and open the door to early treatment. Working together with a trusted healthcare team, you can create a wellness plan that can keep your heart healthy and take action to manage any risks you face.
- Maintain or achieve a healthy body weight. This is a challenge where sound medical advice can be empowering. While being overweight is linked to risk factors for heart disease, lowering your weight as part of your wellness plan will reduce these risks dramatically.
- Eat a varied and balanced diet. Eating a diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein will provide the nutrients and protective elements your body needs to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system. Avoiding foods high in saturated fat, salt (sodium), and added sugars is also known to lower the risk of heart disease.
- Exercise daily. Daily exercise strengthens the heart muscle and improves circulation while helping you to lose weight and reduce blood pressure. Start as slow as your doctor suggests, aiming for at least 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily.
- Stop smoking. If you smoke cigarettes, talk to your doctor about new ways to quit that will help you avoid cravings and other symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. If you use a nicotine replacement product like a vape or inhaler, you may still need support to kick the habit and reduce or eliminate the impact on your heart health.
- Limit your alcohol consumption. Drinking too much will raise your blood pressure, cause dehydration, and add empty calories to your diet. While one drink for women and two for men may have some protective effect on the heart, if you are not a drinker there is no reason to start.
- Manage your stress levels. The stresses of daily life and aggravations of work can raise your blood pressure and, at extreme levels, can trigger a heart attack. Chronic stress can lead to coping with unhealthy habits, including drinking, smoking, and overeating. Learning how to manage stress with relaxation techniques or behavioral therapy can improve your overall wellness.
- Seek treatment for other medical conditions. Having diabetes or periodontal disease can increase your risk of heart disease. Controlling your blood sugar and ridding the body of lingering infections is important to protecting the heart and blood vessels.
- Get enough good-quality sleep. Those who do not sleep well or long enough are at a higher risk of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Problems like sleep apnea can interfere with deep, restorative sleep patterns. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night and talk to your doctor about a sleep study if you can’t fall asleep or stay asleep for that length of time.
Partnering with a Healthcare Team for Heart Health
There is no substitute for having the latest in medical advances and health care technology when it comes to your cardiovascular health. All of these steps to combating heart disease can be part of a comprehensive wellness plan you create with your heart doctor or cardiovascular surgeon.
Prevention goes beyond diagnosing and treating disease. At Crystal Run Healthcare, we provide the guidance and partnership you need to prevent or reverse the early markers of heart disease. With screening tests and resources to manage your lifestyle challenges, we truly partner with our patients to improve their quality of life.
Scheduling a consultation today may be the best way to rest assured that you are doing all you can to empower your self-care and take the right action to improve your health. With your goals in mind and our state-of-the-art technology at Crystal Run, we are transforming cardiovascular care with a proactive approach to reaching your wellness goals.