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What Your Doctor Wants to Know About Your Heart Health

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Doctors conduct exams and tests during annual checkups to get an overall picture of a patient’s health. One important part of this checkup concerns heart health, and for some patients, checking heart health may be the most important part of the exam.

There are key details about your heart health that a primary care doctor or cardiologist (heart doctor) will want to learn during an exam. UAB Cardiovascular Institute cardiologist Gregory Chapman, MD, explains those details in his recent book, “A Strong and Steady Pulse: Stories from a Cardiologist”. Dr. Chapman offers insight from his three decades as a practicing physician and professor of medicine. The book covers many areas of cardiovascular medicine, and one topic concerns the factors that contribute to heart disease.

“There are some basic facts concerning any patient’s health that we look at to get insight into risks for heart disease,” Dr. Chapman says. “If we are seeing a new patient, then as cardiologists we are probably going to ask that patient about every one of them.”

Based on Dr. Chapman’s insight, along with information from the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health, the following checklists highlight the things your doctor wants to know about your heart.

Symptoms: These are signs of a number of possible serious heart conditions. The sudden onset of all or any of these symptoms could mean that not enough blood is flowing to the heart.

  • Pain or tightness in your chest area
  • Shortness of breath even when not physically active
  • The feeling that your heart is beating too fast or at an irregular rhythm

Risk Factors: These are facts about your health that can make it more likely that you’ll experience a cardiac event or have a chronic heart condition.

  • Family history: A pattern of heart disease, including high cholesterol and high blood pressure, among your parents, grandparents, and siblings. Most people with a significant family history of heart disease have one or more other risk factors.
  • Smoking: Cigarette smoking acts with other factors to increase the risk for coronary artery disease. Smoking also is a key risk factor for sudden cardiac death in patients who already have coronary artery disease.
  • High cholesterol: Monitoring cholesterol and getting cholesterol numbers to a safe level can be one of the most important risk-reduction measures, because high cholesterol does not show symptoms.
  • Hypertension: High blood pressure, known as “the silent killer,” is a strong risk factor for both heart disease and stroke.
  • Diabetes: Adults with diabetes are 2-4 times more likely to have heart disease than those without diabetes. At least 68% of people with diabetes over age 65 die from some form of heart disease. Among that same group, 16% die of stroke.
  • Nutrition: There may be foods you are eating, or eating too much of, that contribute to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes.
  • Physical activity: An inactive lifestyle is a risk factor for coronary artery disease. Daily activity increases your length and quality of life. Studies show that just 15 minutes of walking per day can reduce all medical-related causes of death by 11%.
  • Stress: Stress can cause inflammation, triggering other risk factors that can harm your heart, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Long-term stress can affect sleep quality, reduce energy needed for exercise, and lead to lifestyle choices that may cause weight gain or increased alcohol use.
  • Obesity: People who have excess body fat, especially around the waist, are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke, even if they have no other risk factors.
  • Excessive alcohol use: Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure and increase your risk for stroke. It also can produce irregular heartbeats.
  • Cocaine: Cocaine is the illegal drug most often associated with visits to hospital emergency departments in the United States. Cocaine use is linked with chest pain and heart attack. Because its use can cause a heart attack in several ways, some researchers call cocaine “the perfect heart attack drug.”

Medical Conditions: Your medical history, and any current medical conditions you have, may indicate your risk for heart disease.

  • History of cardiac events or chronic heart condition, have had heart surgery or other vascular procedure
  • Arthritis or other types of inflammation
  • Undergoing kidney dialysis
  • HIV-positive
  • Undergoing certain cancer treatments
  • Congenital heart disease during childhood

Click here to learn more about your risk for heart disease or to make an appointment with a UAB Medicine cardiologist.