Prevention is the Best Cure for Heart Disease
Identifying Risk Factors for Cardiac Disease
It's a classic patient story. A 55-year-old man, suffering mild to moderate
chest pain, finally saw a doctor at his wife's insistence. As his medical
history unfolded, the doctor learned that the patient's mother and father both
died of heart attacks while in their sixties, and two of his siblings had heart
attacks, as well. Yet, in spite of a family history of heart disease, this
gentleman had not seen a doctor since he was a child.
By the time his medical evaluation was complete, we learned that he had
three risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol,
and high levels of homocystine, which is a metabolic
abnormality associated with increased coronary artery disease. These conditions
do not typically give rise to pain or discomfort until they have caused a
certain amount of damage to the circulatory system, or until they culminate in
a heart attack. All of these conditions can be inherited, and all are easily
diagnosed by a complete physical examination and chemical blood profile.
We also learned that this patient has already suffered his first heart
attack. In short, he was at the same risk for early death from heart disease as
were his parents. Fortunately, we now have the technology and the surgical
capabilities to give him a second chance. We can reopen blocked vessels, we can even perform heart bypass surgery to buy him
time. But how much easier it would have been if, knowing his family history, he
had seen a doctor while still in his early to mid thirties.
Preventing heart disease is an achievable goal, even for people with one or
more inherited risk factors. By identifying problems early and modifying your
lifestyle, you have a better chance of living a long, healthy life. Some of
these modifications require your doctor's help, but some you can accomplish on
your own. And every step you take to bring down your blood pressure and lower
your cholesterol reduces the wear and tear on your circulatory system, and
decreases the likelihood that these silent killers will make you sick.
Lifestyle changes you can initiate on your own include cutting back on the
fat in your diet and getting regular exercise. You do not have to give up all
of the food you love and take up jogging. By simply changing the proportions of
the different types of food you consume, you can begin to reduce your fat
intake. Eat red meat and dairy products less often, and in smaller servings.
Take a 30-minute walk, five or six days a week. Incremental steps to lower
blood pressure and cholesterol are independently beneficial to your body, and
each positive action you take decreases your risks for heart disease.
If you smoke, make a genuine effort to quit. New approaches to smoking
cessation are proving more successful than simple nicotine replacement
programs. This is an effort with which your doctor can help you.
Your doctor can also prescribe medication to help bring your cholesterol
level and blood pressure down, if your own attempts don't bring about the
desired results. If you have dangerously high cholesterol, the right medication
can prolong your life by slowing the destructive buildup of plaque on vessel
walls and by reducing your risk of stroke and heart attack. Similarly, blood
pressure medication can mitigate the long-term effects of a circulatory system
that is working too hard.
Don't be afraid to ask for your doctor's help in setting realistic goals and
monitoring your progress. You can make these changes slowly, make them in a way
that is compatible with who you are, and you can live a long and healthy life
that is not cut short unnecessarily by heart disease.
Dr. Swisher is
board certified in cardiology, echocardiography, and internal medicine. She serves on the medical staff of Cayuga Medical
Center and is in practice with Ithaca Cardiology
Associates, where she can be reached at (607) 272-0460.