February is national Heart Month, the goal of which is to draw attention to the prevalence of cardiovascular disease in this country. By learning more about the causes of heart disease, our personal risk factors for developing it, and measures we can take to prevent it, we can have a positive impact on the nation’s number one cause of death.
What are the risk factors for heart disease?
In all honesty, we don’t yet know all of the risk factors for heart disease; however, we have identified many of them including diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, smoking, underlying inflammatory disorders, and an early family history of heart disease.
The more risk factors you have, the higher your risk for cardiovascular disease. However, if you identify your risk factors at an early age and work with your doctor to modify or resolve them, you can decrease or delay the risk of developing heart disease. By way of example, studies show that when high blood pressure is treated, it does not have the same ramifications for heart disease as untreated high blood pressure.
Studies also show that people with known coronary disease who effectively lower their cholesterol have fewer cardiac events than those who don’t lower their cholesterol.
What role does diabetes play in developing heart disease?
The data show that diabetes is the biggest single risk factor for heart disease due largely to the fact that people with diabetes eventually develop blood vessel disease in both large and small vessels. Diabetes is one of the very worst promoters of atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in the arteries). On a positive note, research also shows that if you are “pre-diabetic” you may be able to avoid getting diabetes with diet, exercise, and weight control.
What is the link between obesity and heart disease?
The obesity epidemic is going to increase the prevalence of heart disease in this country. Pediatric obesity will likely result in patients developing heart disease and diabetes at an earlier age. Educating our children about healthy choices and setting a good example are absolutely crucial to their long-term wellbeing. Moreover, as adults, we can modify our own unhealthy habits to improve our quality of life and extend our longevity. Being overweight is also associated metabolic syndrome.
What is metabolic syndrome?
When an individual has slightly raised values without any overt medical problems, they have metabolic syndrome. This occurs when a person is moderately overweight and has slightly elevated blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. Although no single indicator is drastically out of line, everything is a little higher than it should be. Studies show that with metabolic syndrome plaque is developing in the arteries prematurely and this increases risks for heart attack and stroke. Metabolic syndrome can be turned around with lifestyle changes in diet and activity, and for some people medication may be indicated.
What is the role of inflammatory disease?
The impact of inflammatory disease is more difficult to isolate. The inflammatory process can be set off by infections and certain inflammatory disorders. There is significant research being done on the relationship between inflammation and cardiovascular disease: while there is a correlation between inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease, at this point we don’t have a lot of answers.
New approaches to heart disease
Historically, coronary disease and vascular disease have been treated as related, but separate, problems. However, research suggests that heart problems develop from a systemic disease, and future approaches to treatment may have us looking at more systemic solutions rather than just treating the different components as we do today. There is no question that the surest way to avoid cardiovascular disease is primary prevention.
Dr. Swisher is board certified in cardiovascular disease and is a Fellow of the American College of Cardiology. She is a member of the medical staff of Cayuga Medical Center and is in practice with Cayuga Heart Institute of CMA, where she can be reached at (607) 882-9068.
The Cayuga Heart Institute is a hospital wide multidisciplinary team of health professionals linking Admissions, the Emergency Department, the Cardiac Catheterization Team, Intensive Cardiac Care Unit, Inpatient Telemetry, Outpatient Testing, the Laboratory, Imaging Services, Nutrition and Dining, the Cayuga Center for Healthy Living, Cardiovascular Rehabilitation, and our Emergency Medical Services (EMS) providers. Working together, they provide a comprehensive network of cardiac care.