Improving Heart Health with a Focus on Mind and Body
By Juzar Lokhandwala, MD
More than half a million people die from heart disease every year. That’s why it comes as no surprise that it is the leading cause of death for those living in the United States. Touching closer to home, nearly 40,000 Texans died from heart disease in 2012. Heart disease clearly impacts our communities, so what can we do to address it? When it comes to heart health, a significant plan of attack focuses on a healthy mind, body and soul.
How do we rank as a heart-healthy city?
A recent Gallup-Healthways survey ranked 190 American communities by the percentage of people who reported having a heart attack. The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex ranked 71 on the list, with just 3.4 percent of residents reporting ever having a heart attack. So we’re not the best but certainly not the worst. With up to 80 percent of all cardiovascular diseases being preventable, we have room for improvement.
Do I have to worry about a heart attack?
According to the American Heart Association, each year about 735,000 Americans suffer from a heart attack. Unfortunately, 15 percent of those individuals die. On average, men who are 45 years or older and women who are 55 and older are at high risk for a heart attack.
Diseases of the heart and blood vessels are prevalent in approximately 8 out of 10 women above the age of 80, in 7 out of 10 women between 60 and 79, and in 1 out of 4 women between 40 and 59 years. Cardiovascular disease is now the leading cause of death in women.
Some individuals don’t even know they are having a heart attack because symptoms may be mild or non-existent. This is called a silent heart attack and it happens mostly to people with diabetes.
What are the warning signs and symptoms of a heart attack?
You may experience discomfort in your chest, shortness of breath or pain in related areas such as the jaw, neck or left arm. Some people have a sudden and sharp pain, while others experience only mild pain. Both experiences may last for a couple of minutes up to a few hours.
Symptoms may also include cold sweat, nausea, vomiting, sudden dizziness or increased tiredness. These symptoms tend to be more prevalent among women.
If you experience at least one of these symptoms you should seek medical attention.
What happens during a heart attack?
Over the years your heart can accumulate plaque and thicken enough to block the flow of blood in your body. If the plaque in your coronary artery ruptures, a fatty substance found in plaque becomes exposed. A blood clot forms in the area of the rupture, becoming the main blockage to your blood flow.
The blockage doesn’t allow oxygen-rich blood to get to your heart and results in your nervous system sending an informative message to your brain. You begin to sweat and your heart rate accelerates. You might also feel nauseous and weak.
Your nervous system also sends signals to your spinal cord causing discomfort and pain to other parts of your body. You may feel chest pain that moves to your neck, jaw, ears, arms, wrists, shoulder, back and even your stomach.
Without proper and immediate treatment your heart muscle will die. If your heart stops beating your brain cells die in a matter of just three to seven minutes.
Is there gender difference in heart disease and its treatment?
If you are a woman younger than 75 years of age presenting with a heart attack, your survival rate is significantly lower during hospitalization than a man of the same age. This gender difference is more pronounced in younger women. It is also very important to keep in mind that women are less likely to have the typical symptoms of a heart attack and present later to the emergency room.
Cardiac catheterization, also popularly known as “heart cath,” is the most accurate method of assessing the heart arteries for blockages or cholesterol build-ups in patients who are strongly suspected of having heart artery blockages. If you have symptoms of a heart attack, it is important to go to the emergency room as soon as possible where a cardiac catheterization can be performed to open up the blockage and stop the heart attack. If there is not a strong suspicion, other methods of assessing the heart arteries such as stress testing and CT scan of the heart are initially used. However, if these methods suggest heart artery blockages, cardiac catheterization remains the most accurate way of confirming the severity of the blockages and potentially fixing them, if appropriate, by angioplasty and placement of a stent.
Can you prevent a heart attack?
Most cardiovascular diseases are preventable. There are a few lifestyle practices to keep in mind to decrease the possibility of a heart attack.
Manage your stress. Researchers have found that when you experience stress your white blood cell levels increase, which raises the risk of plaque ruptures.
Eat healthy foods. It’s imperative to avoid eating processed foods, refined carbs and trans-fats. In addition to fruits and vegetables, we should balance our omega-3 to omega-6 fat ratio by eating fish. Eating high-quality fats and protein helps as well.
Exercise regularly and manage your weight. For those that are obese, losing 10 percent of your body weight lowers your risk for a heart attack. It is important to spend at least two-and-a-half hours per week engaging in exercise.
Quit smoking. Smoking causes blood vessels to narrow and thicken. Smoking also causes blood-clot formations that can lead to the blockage of blood flow to your heart.
How does someone who has already experienced a heart attack maximize the efforts at preventing another one?
Targeting measures to improve heart health is most important in people who have already had a heart attack or heart artery blockages. Traditionally, most people undergo cardiac rehabilitation, which includes exercise and some dietary advice.
Now there is a more intensive cardiac rehabilitation available that focuses on:
• Improving exercise capacity
• Making significant changes to the diet by switching to a plant-based diet
• Stress management therapies that include meditation as well as group support
This program has been shown to reverse the trajectory of heart disease for patients who make lifestyle changes and commit to sustaining them throughout their lives.
By focusing on our mind, body and soul, we can successfully address cardiovascular disease, one heart-healthy step at a time.
Juzar Lokhandwala is a cardiologist on the medical staff at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital and director of the Intensive Cardiac Rehabilitation program at Texas Health Arlington Memorial. He can be reached at 817-461-3003.