Listen to your heart

Published on February 18, 2022

Listen to your heart

Photo of female cardiac patientThe words “listen to your heart” are more important than just the lyrics to a 1980s tune or the advice your friend gives you about a relationship, but one that is important to dwell on when you’re talking about your health. February is American Heart Month. We take this time each year to step back and check in with our hearts and our overall health.

Charis Grosdidier, a nurse practitioner with Cardiovascular Specialists of Lawrence, shared a sobering statistic – one person in the US loses their life every 36 seconds due to cardiovascular disease. That’s about the amount of time it’s taken you to read this far. So with a fact like this, what can we do to ensure we live long, heart-healthy lives? 

Charis Grosdidier

Charis Grosdidier, APRN-C, AGPCNP

One of the best things Grosdidier recommends? Adopting an exercise program. Walking for 30 minutes a day, five days a week can be a great start. Pair this with healthy eating, and you are well on your way to living a healthier lifestyle.

“Losing weight is also helpful for heart health, especially for conditions such as atrial fibrillation, which is an irregular and very fast heart rhythm that can lead to clots and overall increase your risk of stroke, heart failure and more,” she said. “People should also increase their intake of lean meat and fish in their diets, as well as increasing fresh fruits and vegetables. Controlling your other medical problems is also important, for instance, diabetes and high blood pressure. Finally, don’t smoke cigarettes, or stop smoking if you already smoke.”

When meeting with your doctor, it is important to discuss more than just your health. Talk about your family’s health history as well. If there is a long line of heart failure in your family, it may be wise to have a heart risk assessment completed. Additionally, discussing this with a trusted clinician can help ease your mind and set you up for a healthy future.

“If you have a family history of heart disease, it’s important to make sure that you don’t have any of the risk factors you could eliminate to control the development of heart disease,” Grosdidier said. “This is great to discuss with your primary care provider who is familiar with your medical history.”

Darcy Conaway, MD, a cardiologist with Cardiovascular Specialists of Lawrence said the Emergency Department (ED) should be reserved for serious medical conditions. Visiting your primary care provider (PCP) is less costly and provides you with continuity of care. If you’re experiencing something that seems off during normal working hours, the best option is to contact your PCPs office first and ask what they suggest you do. They’ll commonly advise one of three options: seeing them that day for an evaluation, going to the ED or calling 911 immediately. As always, if you are seriously concerned you should call 911. If you have a concern outside of the primary care clinic’s hours, go to the ED – especially if you feel like you may be having a heart attack.

Grosdidier said the traditional and most common symptoms of heart failure include a heavy feeling over the middle or left side of your chest, especially if that feeling is accompanied by pain down your arm, pain up your neck, nausea, sweating or shortness of breath.

Women, more than men, may experience different types of symptoms instead of the traditional symptoms. Women more commonly will have upper abdominal pain, fatigue and lightheadedness. Dr. Conaway said the difference in the way symptoms present in women and men is a very interesting topic and one that several publications in medical literature have covered.

“One study interviewed over 2000 women and almost 1000 men between the ages of 18-55. It found that the majority of women and men had chest pain, but women were more likely to have more than three symptoms,” she said. “If you looked at the more serious subset of women, serious meaning their case must be taken emergently to the catheterization lab, they were less likely to present with chest pain and more likely to perceive symptoms as stress or anxiety. Women were also more likely than men to have sought medical attention for similar symptoms before their actual heart attack.”

Dr. Darcy Conaway

Darcy Conaway. MD

Regardless of your gender, an unhealthy heart is still an unhealthy heart. Some warning signs to look for are shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain, swollen feet and ankles that don’t go away either after propping them up or overnight and decreased exercise tolerance.

“When comparing a healthy heart vs. an unhealthy heart, we can see that healthy hearts can squeeze effectively and relax effectively,” Grosdidier said. “We keep our hearts healthy by exercising, keeping our cholesterol under control, abstaining from smoking and keeping high blood pressure and diabetes controlled.”

Cholesterol is something we hear a lot as it pertains to heart health, but do you know what cholesterol is? Dr. Conaway says it is a substance your body needs to build cells and make vitamins and hormones. There is “good” cholesterol (HDL) and “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and it can come from two sources – your liver and foods made from animals.

“Foods that are high in saturated and trans fats cause the liver to make more bad cholesterol – along with some other things like tropical oils in baked goods. Cholesterol can also join with other substances which can then stick to the walls of your arteries around the heart and make them more susceptible to clot formation,” she said. “Both clots and the narrowing of arteries can put you at a higher risk for heart attack and stroke. The rule of thumb is good cholesterol can be beneficial to the heart and vessels, whereas bad cholesterol can increase your risk of a serious medical event.”

Despite the high number of fatalities due to heart failure, there is hope because it’s not too late to start getting healthy. One thing Grosdidier says is beneficial when seeing patients is when they know how much activity and exercise they can tolerate. This helps her and her team see if you are having a harder time with exercise. Getting that daily walk in and knowing how well you do it is helpful.

While you may not have any issues now, having good habits when you’re young does affect your health when you are older. Establishing good eating habits, an exercise routine and abstaining from nicotine are all important for you to live a long and quality life. Dr. Conaway said prevention is key.

“We can prevent heart disease are by adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle, maintaining a healthy weight, staying active and knowing your family history,” she said. “If you have already had heart disease you are much more likely to live a normal lifespan and have a good quality of life if you are proactive before an attack happens.”

Jessica BrewerStory by Jessica Thomas

Jessica is the Social Media & Digital Communications Specialist at LMH Health.