ROCKLAND COUNTY, N.Y. -- For most of its history, the treatment of heart disease has largely been reactionary. Doctors were often only able to treat patients after a cardiac episode had taken place, usually after considerable damage had already occurred. However, thanks to new technology, doctors are now able to identify potential problems in patients years before symptoms present themselves.
Identifying atherosclerosis, the hardening and narrowing of the arteries, has been the focus of much recent cardiac research. “The problem with finding people with early atherosclerosis is that it is clinically silent—it doesn’t cause obvious health problems we can see,” said Dr. David Southren, cardiologist at Advanced Cardiovascular Care and chief of cardiology at Nyack Hospital. “We aren’t waiting until a person’s blood pressure or lipid levels become very high before we start treatment. We now have more exact ways to evaluate a person’s individual risk for heart disease.”
For those with certain risk factors, their doctor may refer them to a cardiologist for further testing which can include a coronary calcium scan—a CT scan that takes pictures of the arteries to check for calcified plaque in the arteries, and a CT angiogram, which uses X-rays to provide detailed pictures of the heart and the blood vessels to look for disease.
“We can take a person with mildly elevated cholesterol or blood sugar or a family history of premature heart disease and do a calcium scan to find out if they have atherosclerosis decades before they might have a heart attack or stroke,” said Southren. “We can lower their blood pressure and cholesterol and get their diabetes under control, which can help prevent them from going into the hospital with heart disease. In many cases use of these tests will have a significant impact on how we decide to treat patients.”
In addition to undergoing cardiac tests, the American Heart Association recommends the following heart-health screening tests:
Blood pressure: High blood pressure greatly increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Pressure should be checked at least once every two years if your blood pressure is less than 120/80 mm Hg. If that number is higher, a more frequent checkup is recommended.
Cholesterol: A fasting lipoprotein profile should be taken every four to six years, starting at age 20. This is a blood test that measures total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol and HDL (good) cholesterol.
Weight/Body Mass Index (BMI): Your weight should be checked during your regular healthcare visit. Being obese puts you at higher risk for health problems such as heart disease, stroke, atrial fibrillation and congestive heart failure.
Blood sugar: High blood sugar levels put you at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Untreated diabetes can lead to many serious medical problems including heart disease and stroke. Your blood sugar (glucose) should be tested at least every three years.
“Talk to your doctor about your risk factors for heart disease,” said Southren. “The earlier you treat them with lifestyle changes and/or medications, the greater the chance you’ll be able to live a longer, healthier life.”