February is here and with it comes a 28 (and sometimes a 29)-day focus on heart health. There’s an important reason why this topic gets an entire month of dedication: heart disease (a catch-all term for all the diseases affecting the heart and blood vessels) is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. As daunting as that sounds, it’s balanced by the good news that the condition is also one of the most preventable.
Let’s start with the facts, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):
- Heart disease kills about 610,000 people in the U.S. annually (responsible for 1 in every 4 deaths)
- Around 47% of Americans (nearly half!) have at least one of the major risk factors for heart disease. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a smoking habit.
- While some risk factors, such as age and family history, can’t be controlled, it is possible to successfully reduce your risk based on the factors you can control. Positive lifestyle changes and taking charge of health conditions like diabetes and obesity have the potential to make a significant impact.
Which risk factors affect you directly? What steps should you take? And—how concerned should you be? Fortunately, in honor of American Heart Month, there is an abundance of information circulating on this topic right now. Pay attention to the facts and make it your business to be in the know.
That said, be as wary about what you learn from “Dr. Internet” as you do from an online dating site. When it comes to matters of your ACTUAL heart health, nothing beats (pun intended) a meaningful long-term relationship with your primary care physician. Here’s what you can expect from your next heart-wellness check—and what you can do to make the most of it:
- Pay attention to any unusual symptoms you may be experiencing, even if they aren’t ordinarily associated with heart-health, like fatigue or indigestion. Be ready to communicate their onset and frequency to your PCP.
- If you haven’t previously documented your family history, talk to your relatives before your visit to get the most accurate information possible. Factors to consider include incidence of high cholesterol or blood pressure, the presence of congenital heart defects and heart attack-related episodes or deaths.
- Make a list of questions. Consider age- or lifestyle-related concerns, such as the impact of menopause or recommendations for diet and exercise.
- Your PCP will document or review your family history. They’ll also inquire about any recent changes to your health, including any new symptoms you might be experiencing.
- There will be a physical examination, which should include an assessment of weight and blood pressure.
- Your PCP will order necessary baseline/annual labs and screenings. If you have questions about the purposes of these tests, when the results will be available or the best way to discuss with your doctor afterwards, be direct and express whatever is on your mind.
- Your PCP should follow up with you to explain the results of labs and screenings and collaborate on a care plan. You may be prescribed medication and/or referred to a cardiologist.
- Be sure to ask about short-term and long-term next steps. Should you schedule an appointment in the near-future to assess the benefits of the new medication vs. any side effects? What kind of continuous monitoring is necessary? When do you need your next screening?