February is American Heart Month, a time to raise awareness about the importance of heart health and the dangers of heart disease – the leading cause of death in the U.S. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 5 deaths in the U.S. in 2020 were due to heart disease which affects men and women, as well as people of all ages and races.
But there’s good news: you can greatly reduce your risk for heart disease by working with your medical provider to better understand the risk factors and making some simple lifestyle changes. To learn more about how, we asked some of Steward’s own cardiovascular health experts to share their insights about heart disease and advice on how to stay healthy.
Dr. Richard D. Patten, MD, FACC, is the Chief of the Heart Failure division at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton, MA. Board certified in cardiovascular diseases, advanced heart failure and cardiac transplant, Dr. Patten brings a breadth of experience in the advanced heart failure space, particularly in cardiomyopathy and amyloid heart disease. Dr. Christina Pecci, DO, is a non-invasive cardiologist at Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital in Tempe, AZ who specializes in echocardiography, nuclear cardiology, vascular medicine, preventive care, and women’s health.
Dr. Richard D. Patten, MD, FACC (left) and Dr. Christina Pecci, DO (right)
Knowing the Risk Factors
Understanding what factors affect heart health and monitoring them regularly with your doctor can make a big difference.
“The biggest risk factors are cholesterol, uncontrolled high blood pressure and smoking,” says Dr. Pecci. “Smoking is more of an obvious one but it’s a significant cause of rapid onset of heart disease. Hypertension is also very prevalent among the general population and needs to be addressed before it gets out-of-control.”
High blood pressure and cholesterol can cause inflammation in the body which can ultimately lead to heart attacks. Dr. Pecci recommends getting at least an annual check-up with a primary care physician in order to monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol and keep both in check.
Genetic history can also play a part in elevating an individual’s risk for heart disease – though it’s not definitive. “Don’t discount your genetic history,” says Dr. Pecci who encourages even healthy people with a family history of heart disease to get annual check-ups as a precautionary measure.
That said, Dr. Patten says, “People have a lot more control than they think” when it comes to avoiding their parents’ health trajectory and can take steps to offset the disease and longer, healthier lives.
Dr. Pecci also encourages women to be extra vigilant about potential signs of heart problems. Unlike men who typically experience standard symptoms for heart attacks – chest pain that radiates up the body – women may find it difficult to detect symptoms.
“For women to be more aware that they don’t experience the same symptoms as men is very important. Some of the biggest symptoms that I see in the hospital are women complaining of fatigue. They might have right-sided chest pain or pain in their shoulders but a lot of them just feel general discomfort which they won’t describe as 10/10 chest pain. They just know something doesn’t feel quite right,” Dr Pecci says. In those cases, she stresses that women should seek out medical advice.
Living a Healthy Lifestyle
“Good health is a lot of common sense,” Dr. Patten says, and it can go a long way in promoting heart health. “Staying healthy means keeping reasonable weight control, exercising and eating a good diet that minimizes processed carbohydrates, high levels of red meats, saturated fats and sodium.”
Both Dr. Patten and Dr. Pecci are proponents of the Mediterranean diet which has been shown to reduce the risk for cardiac disease. The diet includes healthy foods like lean meats, vegetables and fruits, fish, beans, and whole grains, while limiting intake of red meat and saturated fats.
Staying active is also critically important. “Staying physically active sometimes goes by the wayside but it has so many benefits which have been borne out repeatedly. Even if it’s brisk walking, it is really good to do it a few times a week,” Dr. Patten says.
He adds, “Living a good lifestyle from a heart standpoint is not a guarantee that you’re going to prevent disease, but you’ll delay disease” and extend your life. “Living a good lifestyle pays off.”
Given how prevalent heart disease is in the U.S., it’s a good idea for people to get a check-up when they turn 50 to ensure their heart is in good condition. “We have all these preventative measures around other conditions – we tell women to get mammograms at the age of 40 and everyone to get colonoscopies at the age of 50 – but we never tell anyone to go get their heart checked out,” says Dr. Pecci.
The pandemic has only exacerbated the lack of medical consultations. “I saw a huge drop in check-ups during the pandemic, but I didn’t see much of a change in check-ups pre- and post-pandemic because I don’t think as a society we stress enough how important it is to get heart check-ups at certain ages. The sudden cardiac death rate shot up during the pandemic because people didn’t want to go into the hospital because of COVID-19,” says Dr. Pecci.
“Recognizing how serious a heart attack can be, nothing should prevent you from going in to see a doctor if you have symptoms – it’s always worth getting a check-up,” she says. “Nothing is too little.”