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Reduce Your Risk for Developing Heart Disease

February 1, 2012


February is American Heart Month.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death and a major cause of disability in the United States.  Dr. Yvette Fernandez, an outstanding physician and Masonicare at Newtown’s medical director, is all too familiar with the risk factors for developing the disease.  Through years of experience, Dr. Fernandez has learned firsthand that maintaining a healthy lifestyle is extremely important, and she offers the following information and advice to help us reduce our risk.

What is coronary heart disease?
Coronary heart disease, the most common form of heart disease, is a disorder of the heart’s blood vessels.  This often appears as a heart attack, which occurs when an artery becomes blocked and prevents oxygen and nutrients from getting to the heart. Heart disease is one of several cardiovascular diseases, which include stroke, high blood pressure, angina (chest pain), and rheumatic heart disease.  Unfortunately, recent statistics tell us that about every 25 seconds, an American will have a heart attack, and about one person every minute will die from one.  There are clot-busting drugs and other artery-opening procedures that can stop or reverse a heart attack, but they must be given quickly. Recognizing the signs and symptoms and getting immediate help can greatly improve the chances of a positive outcome.  

What is congestive heart failure?
Congestive heart failure is one of the most common reasons people 65 and older are admitted to the hospital.  When someone has this condition, it doesn’t mean that the heart stops, it means that the heart isn’t pumping blood as it should.  The heart continues to work, but the body’s need for blood and oxygen isn’t met.  Signs of congestive heart failure can include shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling in feet, ankles and legs, confusion, and rapid weight gain from fluid retention.  There are many causes of this condition, including clogged arteries, high blood pressure, and diseases or infections of the heart muscle or valves.  Eating a diet low in salt and saturated fat can help ease the symptoms of water retention, but it’s essential that someone with this condition be under the care and supervision of a physician.

How would I know if I’m having a heart attack?
Some heart attacks come on suddenly and are very intense, but most heart attacks start with mild pain or discomfort.  Unfortunately, many people aren’t sure what’s wrong and wait too long to get help.  Some of the signs you might be having an attack include:

Chest discomfort.  Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the middle of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and then returns.  It can be uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.

Discomfort in other areas of the upper body, such as pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the neck, jaw, back or stomach

Shortness of breath

Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or feeling lightheaded

The signs and symptoms of a heart attack listed above are the most common, but in the elderly and in women, for example, heart attack symptoms can be atypical.  Rather than strong chest pain and upper body discomfort, older adults and women often experience upper abdominal pain and associated nausea, and vague, flu-like symptoms can also be experienced.

How can I tell if I’m at risk?
There are several risk factors that can make you more likely to develop heart disease, or if you already have it, can increase the chances that it will get worse.  They include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, being overweight or obese, being physically inactive, having a family history of early heart disease, and age (55 or older for women).

While a few risk factors can’t be changed, such as family history or age, you do have control over many others. Lowering your risk of heart disease doesn’t have to be complicated, and encouraging your family and friends to support your efforts is essential.


How can I reduce my risk?
A crucial first step is to visit your doctor for a thorough checkup, as he or she can be an important ally in helping you set and reach goals for heart health.  Be sure to establish good, clear communication with your doctor. Ask questions about your chances of developing heart disease and how you can lower your risk. You can avoid heart problems in the future by adopting a healthy lifestyle today. 

Don’t smoke!  Smoking or using tobacco is one of the most significant risk factors.  Chemicals in tobacco can damage your heart and blood vessels and lead to narrowing of the arteries (artherosclerosis).  Do whatever it takes to quit!

Exercising regularly can greatly reduce your risk.  Make an effort to exercise for about 30 minutes a day, several times a week. 

Eating a heart-healthy diet is essential.  Follow a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.  Limit your intake of saturated fat and trans fat, which raise blood cholesterol levels.  Avoid foods that are labeled “partially hydrogenated.”  Choose lean meats and poultry without skin, and prepare them by baking or broiling.  If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation.  The CDC recommends no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks a day for men. 

Be sure to cut back on beverages and foods that contain added sugar and salt.  It’s especially important to note that anyone with congestive heart failure (CHF) must closely monitor his or her dietary sodium intake and follow a strict, low-salt diet.  It’s key to keeping them from being readmitted to the hospital because of an exacerbation of their condition. 

Maintain a healthy weight.  Excess weight can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.  Be sure to keep an eye on your portion sizes. 

Get regular health screenings.  Testing your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar levels periodically is essential to lowering your risk for heart disease.

Remember — A healthy diet and lifestyle are the best weapons against heart disease. 

Masonicare at Newtown provides exceptional support for patients with heart failure. The Heart Failure Support Program uses an interdisciplinary approach that encompasses diet, education, exercise and therapy.  According to Dr. Fernandez, the program was designed to help patients being discharged obtain – and maintain – optimal health when they return home. “According to our patients, they really enjoy the interaction with other patients and the positive reinforcement and support they receive from staff.  They comment that the information and assistance provided is important and very helpful to them and their families,” she explains.    

The Heart Failure Program provides on-site staff and coverage 24/7.  If appropriate, a Telehealth monitoring system is initiated to help patients learn how to self-manage their conditions when they return home.  Certified Occupational and Physical Therapists develop a customized exercise plan for each patient, and a 4-part educational series that includes diet recommendations and medication management is offered.  Patients are also encouraged to participate in A Heart Failure Support Group, which meets regularly at Masonicare at Newtown.  Masonicare Home Health & Hospice provides a transition nurse, who will visit patients to establish continuity of care as they transition home, and MD appointments with a community physician are arranged prior to discharge.  For additional information on Masonicare at Newtown’s Heart Failure Support program, please call Kristen Mitchell at 203-364-3211.