You’re healthy, right? You exercise regularly and, for the most part, follow a healthy diet full of all the right types of nutrition. In fact, you’re so busy engaging in sports and exercising daily that you never even think about having your heart checked out.
Yet, it’s a known fact that worldwide, heart disease causes more deaths than any other illness. In the USA, there are about 650,000 new heart disease diagnoses every year.
Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer. That’s a compelling reason to have heart screenings, no matter how healthy you think you are.
What Is Cardiovascular Disease?
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) refers to a range of conditions affecting either the heart or blood vessels.
CVD is most often associated with an increased risk of blood clots (as in deep vein thrombosis, or DVT) or from fatty deposits building up inside the arteries, known as atherosclerosis. CVD can also be responsible for damage to arteries in organs such as the brain, heart, kidneys, and eyes.
Heart Screenings Are Lifesavers
Another fact is that before having a heart attack or stroke, many people experience no symptoms at all. Anyone over 35 years of age should get tested. Especially if you have one of the following risk factors:
- Unhealthy diet
- Sedentary lifestyle
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Family history of heart disease
Screening is important because problems can be detected early before they develop into serious conditions.
Your general practitioner can arrange for a basic heart screening, which would usually include the following:
- Blood pressure and heart rate
- Body Mass Index (BMI)
- 12-lead electrocardiogram
- Metabolic syndrome calculation
- Framingham score calculation
- Comprehensive cholesterol screening
A comprehensive cholesterol screening would include tests to determine your blood sugar level, as well as the levels of triglycerides, glucose, HDL, LDL, TC in your blood.
Of course, you can monitor several items in the list above yourself in between regular screenings. There is a range of reasonably priced digital sphygmomanometers on the market, which will give you accurate blood pressure and heart rate readings in the comfort of your own home. Working out your Body Mass Index is easy enough to do on your own with a little help from your bathroom scale and an online BMI calculator.
Many pharmacies will perform a basic cholesterol and blood sugar test for free. Informing yourself as to what your levels of cholesterol should be, as well as the ideal blood sugar level, is a good start to becoming more “heart conscious.” We do not recommend treating yourself — always consult your doctor — but it is good to have a general idea about the state of your heart and the state of your health.
Can Science Fix Me?
The short answer is “not always.” While medical research is making advances all the time, it is unwise to ignore the early warning signs.
Dr. Kenneth Chien and his team at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute recently discovered “progenitor cells” residing in the heart. They behave in a similar way to stem cells and mark a promising breakthrough because of their capability to generate functioning heart muscle cells.
On the one hand, medical science in this area has advanced precisely because so many people have cardiovascular disease. On the other, unless you have a hereditary condition, there is no real reason that you should become a part of the horrifying statistics mentioned at the beginning of this article.
Who Should Prioritize a Heart Screening?
If you have more than two of the risk factors mentioned above and experience symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, an irregular heartbeat, or palpitations, then your doctor is likely to recommend additional cardiac tests. In fact, these symptoms are likely to prompt a range of tests.
Let’s look at what those tests will include.
An EKG, or electrocardiogram, measures your heart’s rhythm and electrical system. Your doctor will send you for an EKG if you have symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations, or an irregular heartbeat. High blood pressure might indicate that you have an enlarged heart, and an EKG would be able to give more information about that.
While regular exercise is usually recommended, if you have diabetes or heart disease in the family, it’s a good idea to have an EKG before beginning any exercise program.
Not all cardiovascular disease is a result of bad diets and lack of exercise. Sometimes, there may be abnormalities in the structure of your heart. If your doctor suspects that this is the case, he likely with order this test.
The echocardiogram complements the EKG, and the two tests are often used in conjunction as a diagnostic tool. An echocardiogram is an ultrasound of the heart. Its advantage is that it provides information on the structure of the heart and how it is functioning through moving images.
Exercise Stress Test
As with the EKG, if you have any of the classic cardiovascular disease symptoms, diabetes, or a family history of heart disease, getting this test done is advisable if you plan to start a regular exercise program.
An exercise stress test looks for abnormal changes in your heart during exercise. This is the so-called “treadmill” test.
The treadmill test is also used to monitor high-performance athletes during training. Even the extremely fit need to have their heart checked out!
Calcium scoring occurs via a CT scan. The resultant images will indicate whether there is an excessive build-up of calcium in the plaque on the artery walls.
This test is most commonly performed on people at medium risk for heart disease and indicates how likely you are to get a heart attack, suffer a stroke, or heart disease. At this stage, your doctor could use the results to suggest changes to your lifestyle (diet and exercise) and possibly prescribe medication for the short term.
According to the American Heart Associations, some cardiac screening tests should occur as early as 20 years old. From the age of 45, you should be screened for more possible problems.
These tests are not just for people who feel poorly or fall into the high-risk categories. These tests, ideally, should be part of a regular medical checkup for everyone.
The older you get, the higher the chance that those risk factors will come into play.
Prevention Is Better Than Complications
As always, it is important to talk with your primary care physician or cardiologist (if you have one) about heart screenings. They are the ones who can advise you whether you should be screened and when.
The results of the screenings will help your doctor with the information you need to make the necessary adjustments to your lifestyle and seek further treatment if need be.
Managing potential heart disease begins with educating yourself. Talking to your doctor, getting your heart screened, and reading the other health and medicine articles here on this site are all good steps in the right direction.