This February, follow your heart to a healthier you

By Craig Brett, MD, Northern Light Mercy Cardiovascular Care 

With Valentine’s Day approaching, matters of the heart are certainly a common topic of discussion. But what about the health of your own heart? Dr. Craig Brett, medical director of cardiology for Northern Light Mercy Hospital, reviews cardiovascular risk factors and what you can do to keep your heart in top condition.

What exactly is heart disease?
Heart disease is a broad term, as there are many different types of problems that can affect the heart, but the most common type is coronary artery disease, which is a process where the arteries that feed the heart become obstructed over time with fatty deposits. This can eventually cause chest pain and heart attack.

According to the CDC, about half of all Americans have at least one of three key risk factors for heart disease, which are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. What should someone do if they think they have one or more of these risk factors, and how important is it to take action?
It is true that most people who develop coronary artery disease have one or more of those risk factors. First off, it is critical to know if you have those risk factors. "Know your numbers" is an important concept, since if you don't know if your cholesterol or BP is elevated, it won't be treated.

There are many lifestyle changes that can help manage these risk factors. There are also effective strategies to support people who want to quit smoking. Your medical provider can guide you through the process and any medications that might be helpful.  

How much does genetics and a family history of heart disease play into someone’s risk of developing the disease?
Genetics are very influential in determining whether someone may develop coronary artery disease or not, and so it is important to know about your family history. We can't do much about our own genetics, but if someone does have a history of heart disease in their family, then it will be particularly important to control the other risk factors that can be influenced by quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy weight. 

Are there other risk factors that play a role in developing heart disease such as someone’s age?
There is increasing recognition that chronic stress may play a role in developing heart disease. The body's adaptative responses to stress are helpful in the short term, but when activated chronically, can accelerate the development of fatty plaques in the coronary arteries, and increase the likelihood of blood clots in these arteries. Knowing the harmful effects of chronic stress and practicing mindfulness can be very helpful in preventing cardiac events. 

If anyone has concerns or questions about their heart heath, I recommend they speak with their primary care provider who could connect them to additional resources.

Dr. Craig Brett is medical director of Northern Light Mercy Cardiovascular Care, which has offices in Portland and Yarmouth.