By Ernst Lamothe Jr.
For decades, one health ailment continues to dominate as the most severe. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, women and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One person dies every 34 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease.
It is a condition that remains a health issue globally. The World Health Organization states cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death globally, taking an estimated 17.9 million lives each year.
Cardiovascular diseases are a group of disorders of the heart and blood vessels and include coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, rheumatic heart disease and other conditions.
Brian James Riegel, a cardiologist in Williamsville and affiliated with Great Lakes Cardiovascular, answers some frequently asked questions about heart ailments.
1. Does family history matter?
Having a family health history of heart disease makes you more likely to develop heart disease yourself. In some cases, having family members with heart disease at age 50 or younger can be a sign of familial hypercholesterolemia, a genetic disorder that causes high cholesterol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health officials suggest taking time to collect your family health history of heart disease and share this information with your doctor and other family members.
“First-degree family members include your mother, father and siblings. If your father or brother by age 55 has had a heart attack or required coronary stenting or bypass surgery or has had a mini stroke or stroke, or if your mother or sister by age 65 — then you have a family history of heart disease. If you do have this family history, then your risk for developing cardiovascular disease is also increased,” said Riegel.
2. Do men and women have different types of heart attacks?
The most common symptom of a heart attack for both men and women is pain or pressure in the center or left-center of the chest. Recently, studies have shown that women experience heart attacks quite differently than men. Both men and women can also experience pain in the jaw, neck, arms, shoulders, back or upper abdomen.
“Generally any pain in the center or left side of the chest which is brought on with activity or exertion or mental stress, and relieved with rest, is definitely a cause for concern. Sometimes this radiates up into the left shoulder and arm, or neck or jaw, in both men or women,” said Riegel. “The difference being that many women often experience other symptoms, apart from chest discomfort, such as shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea, sweating, dizziness, shoulder or elbow pain. Unfortunately this often leads women to put off seeking medical attention as the symptoms do not clearly seem heart-related, at least at first impression. It is important for both men and women to let their primary care provider know about any potentially concerning symptoms.”
3. What are some symptoms that you see in youth and adults?
There can be significant differences between heart ailments for youth and adults. Patients who are younger than 18 typically get diagnosed with some type of congenital heart disease.
“I often see both younger and older patients who are complaining of palpitations. This is a common reason patients get referred to a cardiologist. Palpitations come in different forms. Sometimes they are a sensation of skipped beats or fluttering or irregularity with intermittent forceful beats which catch the patient’s attention and can often be quite concerning,” said Riegel.
Other times palpitations could be more of a sustained heart racing or pounding sensation. Many times the symptoms are just related to some extra beats called PVCs which generally are not harmful, but it is important that the cardiologist does appropriate testing to make sure they are not a marker of something more serious.
“However, if there are other concerning symptoms such as persistent cough, difficulty lying flat at night, sudden weight gain or inappropriate swelling in legs or belly, this could be a sign of a more serious heart problem. We would perform the necessary testing to sort this out,” said Riegel.
4. What are some myths you would like to dispel about heart issues?
It’s easy to be fooled by misconceptions. Relying on false assumptions can be dangerous to your heart.
“I hear patients tell me they generally feel OK and try to stay active; but hypertension is the silent killer. Over time, this puts increased stress on the heart which leads to problems down the road including increased risk for heart attack, stroke or congestive heart failure as we get older. It is better to identify this earlier rather than later, as prevention can make a huge difference in our long-term outcome,” he said.
5. How can you improve your odds?
There are a lot of ways people can improve heart health and reduce their risk of heart disease. Healthy behaviors like watching your diet and exercising regularly are important, along with avoiding the use of tobacco, alcohol or drugs.
“Another common reason patients are sent to a cardiologist is shortness of breath. Many times this is just related to relative physical inactivity and so the recommendation is to start or resume or increase a more regular exercise regimen in order to improve conditioning and lose weight,” he added.
Brian James Riegel, a cardiologist in Williamsville and affiliated with Great Lakes Cardiovascular: “If you do have this family history, then your risk for developing cardiovascular disease is also increased,” he says.