Despite hard-fought advances over the decades, heart disease remains the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States, accounting for about one in every five deaths overall. Coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease, affecting more than 7% of people over age 20 in the U.S. In fact, somebody has a heart attack in the U.S. about every 40 seconds.
So, whether you’re seeing a cardiologist for the first time or you’re a returning patient, it’s important to make your visit count. Preparing a list of questions for your cardiologist — and writing them down — will help to ensure that you make the most of your appointment.
Although every patient has unique circumstances, cardiologist Saima Zafar, M.D., a physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Kaufman, suggests that most patients should start with the basics:
Question 1: How likely am I to have a cardiac event?
It’s a direct question but an important one, according to Zafar, especially if:
- You have a family history of heart disease.
- You have a history of heart disease, such as a previous blockage, high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol.
- You are in another high-risk group.
“People of Hispanic or Southeast Asian region heritage have different risk factors at an earlier age that could be impacted,” she points out. “The targets are also different for someone who smokes or who has diabetes or heart disease compared to someone without those risk factors.”
Question 2: How can I stay as heart healthy as possible?
Zafar says it’s important to ask how your lifestyle choices are impacting your heart health, and to be upfront about those choices. That includes your diet, sleep schedule, exercise habits and use of substances such as alcohol and nicotine. “If your cardiologist doesn’t broach the topic, the responsibility lies with the patient,” Zafar notes. “Some people don’t ask, because they’re afraid to make the necessary lifestyle changes.”
While recommendations may differ based on your unique circumstances, Zafar generally advises her patients to follow these guidelines set by the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association:
- Control blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar with lifestyle changes and/or medication. For many people, Zafar says, heart disease is preventable.
- Follow recommendations for a heart-healthy way of eating, such as the Mediterranean diet. In other words, swap out the red meat, fast food and processed food for fresh fish, whole grains, and plenty of fruits and veggies. It’s also good to cook with healthy fats, such as olive oil.
- Exercise at an appropriate level for your physical condition. Even a walk down to the end of the block and back makes a difference, both physically and mentally. But aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.
- Try to reach and maintain a healthy weight. People who have excess body fat are at higher risk for health problems, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes.
- Eliminate stress. “Stress management is extremely important because long-term stress causes high blood pressure, and it can lead to other issues like palpitations,” Zafar says.
- Avoid tobacco and nicotine products and follow recommendations for alcohol consumption. Women should limit alcohol use to one drink a day. Men should have no more than two drinks a day.
- Get seven to nine hours of restful sleep nightly. “Sleep helps your blood pressure stay in check. It helps your mind to relax, and it helps your heart and the other organs rest,” Zafar says.
Question 3: Why are you recommending this?
Your cardiologist may prescribe a new medication, treatment, test or procedure during your time together. While Zafar says your cardiologist will likely explain their recommendations, it’s crucial to ask them to clarify anything that you don’t fully understand. “It’s important to look out for yourself. Once you're empowered, then you can be the best advocate for you and your health.”
This article was developed by the American Heart Association for Texas Health.