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Five questions with a cardiologist

Last Modified: April 04, 2024

Heart Health, Diseases & Disorders

Cardiologist speaking with patient

This post was written based on a recent appearance by Mark O'Shaughnessy, MD, PPG – Cardiology, on the television program PBS HealthLine.

When it comes to taking care of your heart, it's natural to have questions. Here are some of the general topics that may be discussed with patients regarding their cardiovascular wellness. 

What can I do to prevent heart disease?

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women. It's important that we raise awareness that heart issues are significant but preventable in many ways. The primary risk factors for heart disease are cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and family history. Obesity can also be a risk factor, as it predisposes a person to having high cholesterol and diabetes.

I strongly encourage patients to start by knowing their numbers, especially if they have a family history, to make sure they are doing everything they can to prevent this disease. Blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure are three major things that can be addressed with a primary care provider during an annual checkup.

Another screening option for patients is the HeartSmart CT scan, an early detection tool for those who may not yet have symptoms of heart disease but do have several risk factors. There are certain criteria that make you eligible for a HeartSmart CT scan, so be sure to talk to your provider about your qualifications.

More on prevention:

Cardiovascular testing: Do you know your options?

Check your lipid profile to track your cholesterol

Live Well: Screenings 

What lifestyle changes can I make to improve my heart health?

Developing healthy habits early on is more manageable than trying to change them later. The sooner you can start being more active and maintaining a healthier diet the better.

There isn’t one form of exercise that is greater physical activities you find enjoyable and are likely to maintain consistently are best. You don’t have to go out and run races, you just have to move.

I am a firm believer in maintaining a prudent diet and moderating fat intake. Switching out red meat for chicken or fish is a great option. It’s okay to splurge and have a steak every now and then if you want, just not every night. If you’re a smoker it’s also never too late to stop.

More on lifestyle changes:

Smoking Cessation

Movement is medicine: the importance of physical activity

Lifestyle modifications for people with heart failure

These four dietary habits have the biggest impact 

How does stress affect my heart?

We’ve gone back and forth about stress as a risk factor for coronary artery disease (CAD). There is a diagnosis called Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome. If a person experiences severe emotional distress, they can have what appears to be a heart attack, but when we do a heart catheterization there are no blockages.

Takotsubo cases have increased over the years, possibly related to the fact that our lives are way more stressful and fast-paced. It can be challenging to reduce stress, as different methods work for different people. But it’s worth exploring some techniques that might make the day-to-day more manageable.

More on addressing stress:

Five ways to protect your heart from stress 

Take some stress off your body

A natural way to lower blood pressure 

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

Heart attacks are caused by a buildup of fatty cholesterol (plaque) inside the arteries blocking the blood and oxygen supply. When these channels are closed off, the heart doesn’t receive the nutrients it needs. If blood flow is not restored quickly, a heart attack can lead to permanent damage or cardiac arrest. Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart’s rhythm starts, quivers and stops. This can be fatal to someone if they are not resuscitated quickly.

Less than half of patients with reduced blood flow to the heart will present with classic angina symptoms, which includes:

  • Pain, pressure or a strange feeling in the back, neck, jaw, upper belly or in one or both shoulders or arms
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lightheadedness or sudden weakness
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat

For men and women symptoms are nearly identical with slight differences. A good rule of thumb is, if you’re having symptoms from the waist up, it needs to be checked out. It may not be heart disease or a cardiac event, but if it is and we wait too long it can become a real problem.

More on heart attacks:

Responding to a heart attack

What happens during a heart attack?

Heart attacks and gender 

How does an implantable heart defibrillator work?

Defibrillators are fancy pacemakers that monitor your heartbeat, looking for an abnormal rhythm specifically coming from the lower chambers, called ventricular tachycardia, which is life-threatening. The defibrillator acts as a guardian angel, if it recognizes a bad rhythm, it will shock your heart out of it. The shock can be extremely uncomfortable, akin to a forceful jolt in the chest, but it plays a vital role in saving lives.

If a patient is shocked, they should give their cardiologist a call, so that they can inspect the device to make sure the shock was appropriate. These devices are very sophisticated, so it is rare that someone could receive an inappropriate shock. If it occurs once, then the defibrillator did what it is supposed to do. If it is a recurring issue, and the device is working properly, then we would adjust the patient’s medications.

More on defibrillators:

How to operate an AED machine in 60 seconds

Smartphones and your heart

A life is saved with donor support

Embracing a proactive approach to heart health through lifestyle changes, stress management and appropriate medical interventions can help reduce the risks of cardiovascular complications. Our team of specialists and staff at the Parkview Heart Institute are dedicated to providing you with personalized heart care. To schedule an appointment with Cardiology, please call 260-352-5381.

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