Unless you happen to be a cardiologist yourself, no one expects you to share the same expertise as cardiology doctors who’ve spent years studying the heart as a medical specialty. However, there are a few subjects that, if patients understood them, could make a cardiologist’s job a lot easier. Even more importantly, these tidbits of knowledge can help maintain your heart’s health and prevent conditions like cardiovascular disease, atrial fibrillation, heart failure, arrhythmia, high blood pressure, and more.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, with nearly 660,000 deaths attributed to this condition in 2019. With that in mind, it’s clear that cardiovascular health is quite literally a matter of life and death.
Cardiovascular disease, as a broad category, includes conditions such as coronary artery disease (CAD), arrhythmias, heart failure, heart valve disease, cardiomyopathy (or heart muscle disease), congenital heart disease, and others. However, these aren’t the only cardiothoracic conditions that can threaten a patient’s life and well-being. Other cardiovascular conditions may include heart attacks, atrial flutter, clogged arteries, hypertension, congenital heart defects, atherosclerosis, strokes, and more.
From interventional cardiology and cardiac electrophysiology to invasive and noninvasive cardiology and clinical cardiology, cardiology physicians of all specialties recommend both medical intervention and lifestyle changes to care for the cardiovascular system. If you haven’t been prioritizing your heart health, though, you may struggle to implement your heart doctor’s recommendations.
As important as it is to listen to your cardiac specialist or other health care provider, even small, gradual changes can treat and prevent heart conditions. Take stock of the heart care adjustments you’re facing and begin implementing them over time, such as making one of the recommended healthy lifestyle changes each week. In this way, you’re minimizing your discomfort at the moment while still practicing cardiovascular disease prevention and management.
It’s not difficult to find news stories that reference phrases like “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy,” “cardiac arrhythmia,” and “supraventricular tachycardia.” Without a medical education, these terms can seem especially frightening. You don’t need to start studying clinical cardiac electrophysiology or another specialty in order to understand these articles, though. Instead, read the piece carefully and consult the experts.
For instance, look to the recent deaths of two young women: former Miss Teen Universe, Lotte Van Der Zee, and Félicité Tomlinson, younger sister of One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson. At a glance, headlines regarding their untimely deaths call to light the heart attack epidemic that’s enveloped the United States. However, as Dr. Arash Bereliani explains, “A heart attack can potentially cause sudden death, but sudden death is not necessarily caused by a heart attack.” In short, there’s more to cardiology than can be fit in a headline.
Patient education is a crucial component in the ability to obtain quality care—it can encourage patients to make the right inquiries and identify signs and risk factors that will lead their heart specialists to the correct cardiovascular care. At the same time, though, it’s crucial to remember that an internet search is no replacement for the expertise of a cardiac surgeon.
Similarly, specialists, be they cardiologists or those in other specialties, are uniquely positioned to promote health and wellness. Sports physicals, for example, turn to only a general practitioner or primary care physician, who may miss signs of high cholesterol, vascular disease, or abnormal heart rhythms. A cardiologist has years of training focused on the prevention and treatment of diseases of the heart—their advanced techniques and understanding of treatment options make a world of difference in the realm of cardiovascular medicine.
Few heart problems arise overnight, meaning there’s typically space for life-saving preventive care. Cardiologists like Dr. Bereliani may turn to tools like genetic testing, medical and family history, and others to prevent issues like valvular heart disease, pulmonary hypertension, thoracic aortic aneurysm, and other cardiac conditions.
Preventive medicine experts like Dr. Bereliani can then use this information to develop a unique health and wellness plan catered to the patient’s needs. They may draw from the realms of Western medicine, functional medicine, orthomolecular medicine, and other fields to prevent serious cardiac conditions before they become severe illnesses or cardiovascular disease.
When you first turn to improving your heart health, you may struggle to determine what you can and cannot do, much less resign yourself to dropping your favorite vice entirely. In most cases, though, moderation can make nearly as much of a difference as pure abstinence.
For instance, further research is needed to confirm the effects of coffee on the heart. As popular as this morning brew is, especially in the U.S., it’s been a hot-button topic amongst researchers. Some experts reference coffee’s health benefits, including better mental focus, improved brain function, and antioxidant properties. Others, though, paint coffee in a darker light, tying it to heart palpitations and other cardiac conditions. In this case, moderation is a well-informed compromise—a cup or two of black coffee promotes the potential benefits while avoiding the risks of excess consumption or additives.
A cardiologist is not a therapist or psychiatrist—they typically won’t ask how a situation makes you feel or prescribe you an antidepressant. However, there’s no denying that there’s a strong relationship between cardiology and mental health.
Stress can take a toll on heart health, as evidenced by the global strain of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers have even identified broken-heart syndrome, or stress-induced cardiomyopathy, a cardiovascular crisis prompted by the surge of adrenaline that comes with extreme stress. If you’re not sold on the connection between heart health and emotion, the sheer fact that a person can die from a broken heart should be enough to convince you.
Much like experts disagree on coffee as a benefit or detriment to cardiovascular health, research offers various recommendations for therapeutic interventions, invasive procedures, and even lifestyle changes that are suggested for heart health. Blood pressure guidelines are just one example of this phenomenon, in which strict compliance with some interpretations is difficult, if not impossible, for some patients. The often-referenced 10,000-steps-a-day suggestion immortalized in fitness trackers and smartwatches is another instance—in fact, this isn’t even an officially recognized recommendation.
So, how can a patient even dream of knowing what’s best? When in doubt, it’s always best to consult your cardiologist. However, you can often treat these challenging ”expectations” as an ideal, working to meet 10,000 steps or blood pressure within a normal range. But remember: Even a small improvement can make a difference in your cardiovascular health and wellness.
Advanced technology and research ensure that modern medicine can advance by leaps and bounds, making unprecedented changes in surgery, medications, screenings, and other procedures. The average citizen can track their fitness, test their blood sugar or heart rate, and even take an ECG on the go thanks to smart devices!
However, not every aspect of modern technology is beneficial for cardiovascular health. As just one example, consider the prevalence of sugar in processed foods. The average person almost certainly goes beyond daily recommendations, even if they aren’t adding additional sugar to their meals. That rate of sugar consumption, despite its normalcy, has an impact on not just the heart but the body as a whole.
In a vast majority of cases, the average patient can assume that they’re somewhere in the middle of the spectrum that is cardiovascular health. You probably don’t have a perfect heart—few people can truly reach the epitome of vascular health. However, you’re likely not facing life-threatening heart conditions, especially if you aren’t dealing with symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath and you’re taking proper preventive measures.
Of course, it’s important to see your cardiologist to ensure your cardiovascular system is healthy and catch any heart conditions before they arise. But, in more cases than not, you don’t have to live in fear of your own heart. If you have a relatively healthy lifestyle, your cardiologist can help you prevent serious issues.
Most people visit their primary care doctor with some degree of regularity, but they may not schedule an appointment with their cardiologist and other specialists quite so often. While it’s important to see a cardiovascular specialist, whether for preventive medicine or specific treatment, a patient can have more of an effect on their heart’s health than they may realize.
The first step in improving your own cardiovascular health is understanding the basics of your heart, from the risk factors that could threaten your health and well-being to the lifestyle changes that experts recommend. With each lesson you learn, you’ll be better positioned to live a long, healthy life, preventing serious heart conditions and illnesses along the way.