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Compared to women, men avoid going to the doctor more often, skip more recommended screenings and tend to practice riskier behavior. They tend to live more years of their lives with bad health than their female counterparts and also have about a five-year shorter life expectancy than women.
Moreover, 40% of men report that they go to the doctor only when they fear they have a serious medical condition, and 1 in 5 men admit they only go to the doctor so their significant other or loved one will stop nagging them. In fact, a recent study revealed that nearly 3 out of 4 men would rather do household chores, such as cleaning the bathroom, than head in for a checkup.
To make matters worse, 65% of men say they tend to wait as long as possible to see their doctor, even if they have prolonged symptoms or an injury. Those are troubling stats for Parin Parikh, M.D., an interventional cardiologist on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas and at Texas Health Heart & Vascular Specialists, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice.
“There are a few common health mistakes men make when it comes to their heart health, and turning a blind eye is at the root of many of them,” he says. “I don’t know why it happens, but I think men tend to downplay symptoms more than women or they don’t pay attention to symptoms until it gets serious. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen patients in the emergency room and it turns out they’ve been having symptoms for several days or weeks.”
This leads us to our first heart health mistake…
Skipping Preventive Care
As we stated earlier, men tend to go to the doctor less often than women for annual checkups. That means they’re not receiving important routine tests for cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar, which are key to evaluating heart health. Even if they do go to their doctor every year, men are also less likely to report symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath or trouble breathing, and fatigue — even to the point of ignoring symptoms of a heart attack.
“Forty to 50% of heart disease can be reduced if we focus on the traditional risk factors for heart disease, some things that would be addressed at your annual exam,” Parikh adds. “Things such as controlling your diabetes if you have it, not smoking, controlling blood pressure, controlling cholesterol, trying to eat a heart-healthy diet, and trying to stay active. If you focus on those, you could have a significant reduction in heart disease, but a lot of that is tied back to showing up to your annual screenings. If you don’t show up, you’re not going to get screened.”
If you can’t remember your last annual exam or physical, make an appointment to get one as soon as possible. And take action quickly if you feel like something is off or not right.
Thinking You’re Too Young for a Heart Attack
While the average age for a first heart attack in American men is 65, more and more young people are experiencing heart attacks. According to the American College of Cardiology, heart attacks in those under the age of 40 have risen by 2% each year for the last 10 years, or almost 22% over the decade. Nearly 20% of those who die of heart disease are under the age of 65. That risk only increases if you also have a family history or increased risk factors, such as diabetes.
“There are risk factors within your control and there are risk factors that are out of your control, such as family history. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to help give yourself a leg-up when it comes to lowering your risk for a cardiac event,” Parikh explains. “Start screening for things such as blood pressure and cholesterol and blood sugar at age 35. While that may seem young, if you get good test results back then you can wait a couple of years, and after 40 is when it’s recommended you get screened more often.”
Whatever your age is, or how young you may feel at heart, start doing what you can to manage your risk factors, as well as working with your health care provider on controlling high blood pressure or cholesterol.
Ignoring Family History
Men with a family history of early heart attack — a first-degree male family member, such as your father or brother, with a heart attack before age 55, or a female family member, such as your mother or sister, before age 65 — may be at higher risk for a cardiovascular event at a young age, even as early as their 30s and 40s.
While it’s true that certain contributing risk factors can’t be changed, such as increasing age, your gender or your family’s medical history, it’s not “fate” that you’re destined to carry on the “family legacy” of sorts.
“Many people think that a heart attack is destined to happen, but it doesn’t have to be. Recognizing that you have a family history can actually help motivate you to look at these risk factors and see what you’re doing to prevent heart disease,” Parikh says. “For patients who want to get screened at a younger age or have a family history, I also recommend getting a calcium score. They’re very good at identifying high-risk patients, those who are at risk for heart disease at a younger age. If you already have some calcium or plaque buildup in your heart at a younger age, it may benefit you to be on more aggressive treatments and that’s what the test tells us.”
It’s important to not only talk openly with your healthcare provider, but also be honest about family history even if there are things that you don’t think are necessarily important to discuss. From there you can get your risk assessed with further testing and ask about the prevention tactics.
Working Hard and Playing Hard
It happens to the best of us; we get caught up in living life that sometimes we overlook some bad habits we’ve adopted lately or neglect taking care of ourselves.
“We get busy with work or busy with family, especially post-pandemic when it seems like we are all trying to make up for lost time,” Parikh says. “It’s easy for this stuff to get overlooked while you’re busy just living life, but if you add the fact that you’re not staying active, or especially if you’re using tobacco products, that helps contribute to premature or early heart disease.”
While some bad habits may creep up on us from being busy, there are times when we tend to overwork, self-medicate or eat comforting foods to mask bigger things we’re dealing with under the surface, such as depression, which men are less likely to report to their doctor. What makes it extra troubling is there is a link between mental health and heart disease.
“The data is a bit confusing because it’s a sort of a ‘which comes first, the chicken or the egg?’ kind of conundrum. Do you get cardiovascular disease and then you become more depressed, or do you have depression and develop cardiovascular disease because of it,” Parikh says. “What we do know is if you’re suffering from depression, you tend to be less active and/or lean on unhealthy vices, and that plays a role.”
Bottom line: if you’re feeling sad, hopeless or just not like yourself lately, or you’re experiencing changes in the way you eat or sleep — too much or too little — tell your doctor and ask for advice.
Thinking ED is All Mental
Did you know that trouble getting or maintaining an erection often has more to do with your heart than your mental state?
“It’s primarily a vascular issue,” Parikh explains. “Sometimes it can be a sign that you might have uncontrolled diabetes or uncontrolled hypertension. It’s a bit of a canary in the mine that things that help contribute to heart disease are not being controlled.”
These uncontrolled issues can damage blood vessels, so if you’re having erectile dysfunction (ED), it may be an early sign of damage to the blood vessels of the heart.
It’s always best to rule out any heart or vascular issues first, and if you come back with a clean bill of health, then you and your doctor can discuss possible other reasons for the issue.
Taking Control of Your Health
When was the last time you took your car in for maintenance? Now when was the last time you visited your doctor for a little maintenance? Many men keep their cars more finely tuned than their own bodies, but Parikh adds you have to make time for your own health as well.
“Check up on these things, make sure there are no underlying issues because unfortunately, things like blood pressure and cholesterol really don’t show symptoms until they’re far progressed,” he says. “You don’t really feel them or feel bad until they’ve done their toll on the body. By the time you have symptoms, it’s almost a little too late. Just like it’s better to do some preventive measures on your car before you’re dealing with a blown-out transmission, the same thing goes for your body. If you do some preventive maintenance every once and a while, you’re getting things checked out before you’re dealing with things that can’t be reversed or you’re dealing with long-term health complications such as cardiovascular disease. Just getting in and getting treated goes a long way.”
How Old is Your Heart?™ Take our assessment to gauge your risk. Learn more about heart and vascular services near you, or find a specialist at TexasHealth.org/Heart.