The thing about heart disease is that it’s more often than not a silent killer. Heart disease can occur with no symptoms until a major health event happens, such as a heart attack or stroke. This is why it is important to determine your risk factors now, learn to recognize the signs early, and seek preventive treatment while time is on your side.
Because heart disease is America’s number one killer―it takes the life of 1 in 3 women over the age of 20 each year and the life of 1 in 4 men―physicians are keenly aware of the importance of early detection and diagnosis. That’s why cardiologist consultations are typically recommended by a patient’s primary care physician (PCP) in response to either heightened risk factors for cardiovascular disease or symptoms that indicate it may already be present. If your primary doctor suggests you see a cardiologist, don’t put it off.
“A strong family history of heart disease may be the catalyst for a visit with a cardiologist,” says cardiologist John Willard, M.D., FACC, with Texas Health Heart & Vascular Specialists, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice in Fort Worth. “We’ll put together a risk profile, check your heart and circulatory function, and may do some low-level testing to look for calcium deposits—a known sign of coronary disease. Other risk factors we will evaluate include smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and an inactive lifestyle. If results from a cardiology evaluation prove normal, you may continue to be monitored by your primary care physician. More serious findings may indicate the need for medication and long-term cardiology care.”
Dr. Willard adds that the goal with cardiology care is prevention. He also notes that vascular, or circulatory, health is part of the picture here as well. Diseases that impair the vessels and veins of the body ultimately have an impact on the heart and can be difficult to detect without specialized testing. Leg discomfort with movement and activity, leg fatigue, and cramping are all symptoms that should be addressed with your PCP or heart and vascular specialist.
Who is a Candidate for Heart Care?
The two types of people Dr. Willard says he most wants to target for prevention are those individuals whose family history includes heart disease and those whose numbers tend to run a little high. “This is a great time to intervene,” he says. “For other people who have risk factors such as being overweight or smoking and have high numbers, we’re now in prevention mode for a coronary heart disease event.”
While you can’t change your family history, the important numbers Dr. Willard refers to include:
Total Cholesterol and HDL Cholesterol
Your body uses cholesterol to build cells but if the amount of cholesterol in your blood builds up too much, it can pose a risk to your heart health. Too much bad cholesterol (LDL) or not enough good cholesterol (HDL) increases the risk that cholesterol will slowly build up in the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart. This can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
High blood pressure (HBP), or hypertension, is considered a silent killer because it can creep up without any warning signs, and the risk of developing HBP goes up if you are 20 or more pounds overweight or if you have a family history of the condition.
Blood sugar is often measured for diabetes, a condition that increases a person’s risk for heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to die from heart disease than adults without diabetes. If you have a history of diabetes or pre-diabetes in your family, your physician will want to monitor your health for any related signs of heart disease.
Weight and Waist Circumference
Your body mass index (BMI) is a way of measuring how healthy your body weight is in relation to your height. BMI and waist circumference are two measures that can be used as screening tools to estimate weight status in relation to potential heart disease risk.
The ideal numbers to shoot for can vary with the individual so regular checks by your healthcare provider are important. These numbers can help you and your PCP or cardiologist make informed decisions about your heart health.
“We look at the person number one, and don’t use absolute numbers when assessing heart health and risk for disease,” Dr. Willard says. “We do work with guidelines and goals, but sometimes a person has acceptable cholesterol levels, has no vascular disease history and no history of diabetes, manages their weight, exercises regularly, doesn’t use tobacco, and still develops heart disease. For this reason, cardiologists are always looking to remain at the forefront of advances in heart disease detection and diagnosis.”
Providers employed by Texas Health Physicians Group are not employees or agents of Texas Health Resources hospitals.