Paul Gurbel, MD, is the director of the Inova Thrombosis Research and Drug Development Center at the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute. He is board-certified in cardiovascular disease, internal medicine and interventional cardiology.
Henry Tran, MD, is a cardiologist at the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute. He is board-certified in cardiovascular disease and echocardiography.
First the bad news: Heart disease is both common and deadly. Heart disease causes 1 of every 4 deaths in the United States each year, making it the top cause of death in both men and women.
Now the good news: By making healthy choices and managing the disease, you can significantly lower your risk. These tips will help you take control of your heart health.
Heart Conditions in the Family
Unfortunately, heart disease can sneak up on you. Related problems such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol don’t necessarily cause symptoms. What’s more, plaque can start building up in the arteries as early as the teenage years. By your 40s or 50s, those factors can put you at risk of a heart attack.
The one important clue that you shouldn’t ignore is family history. If your parents and/or grandparents had heart disease, there’s a strong chance you might, too. Between the two of us, we have treated tens of thousands of patients. Rarely do we see a person with heart disease who doesn’t have a family history of the disease.
That said, having healthy parents doesn’t guarantee that you won’t develop heart disease. Other factors that increase your risk include:
- Having diabetes
- Being overweight or obese
- Eating an unhealthy diet
- Getting little exercise
- Drinking alcohol excessively
For anyone — but especially those at increased risk — it’s important to engage in heart-healthy behaviors.
Heart Disease Prevention
To reduce your risk of heart disease, the American Heart Association suggests starting with 7 simple strategies:
- Manage high blood pressure.
- Control high cholesterol.
- Reduce blood sugar.
- Get regular physical activity.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet.
- Lose weight (or maintain a healthy weight).
- Stop smoking, if you are a smoker.
One of the most important things you can do to protect your heart: See a doctor for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.
Heart Health at Inova
Physicians commonly use cardiac stress tests to diagnose heart disease. These tests put stress on the heart to determine how much it can handle before it begins pumping abnormally. Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for some people with heart disease to have a negative stress test. And in this case, what you don’t know can hurt you.
At Inova, we employ the latest techniques for diagnosing and managing heart disease. For instance, we often use low-dose CT scans to detect calcium in the coronary arteries. This calcium score test often spots heart disease cases that stress tests miss and can determine how much plaque is in a person’s arteries. The results guide our recommendations for managing cholesterol with medications and lifestyle changes.
For this kind of specialized test, it’s important to see a cardiologist. Primary care doctors can help manage high blood pressure and high cholesterol with medications and behavior changes. But for patients at high risk of heart disease, it’s really important to see a specialist who understands the latest tests, treatments and research on heart disease.
Don’t leave your heart health to chance. Heart disease is preventable and manageable, but only if you know what you’re up against.
Not sure whether you’re at risk? Take our five-minute Heart Risk Assessment to discover your heart age. To learn more about heart disease, listen to Dr. Gurbel and Dr. Tran in the podcast, “Inova Ask The Doctor: Cardiovascular Disease — Signs, Symptoms and Treatment.”