American Heart Month is a time to take a moment to consider one’s own heart health. We spoke with Milford Regional Cardiologist Scott Brownstein, MD, FACC, about the importance of exercise, proper nutrition, and steps to take for preventative care.
What is your biggest takeaway during this American Heart Month?
One of the things that I think is so important is not just overall heart health for everyone, but in particular for women to really be thinking about their heart health. I think that women often underestimate their risk of heart disease. Heart disease is still the number one killer of women worldwide. Certainly, in America, it’s about eight times that of breast cancer. I think that it’s really important for our female patients and women in our community to be thinking about their heart health on a regular basis in addition to our male patients.
What can people do to take care of their heart or look into preventative measures?
Things that I think are paramount to improving heart health and overall health and well-being are heart nutrition and physical activity. Those are sort of the keystone aspects of our health. I talk about this with my patients all the time in terms of nutrition. We’re trying to get patients and our community to start thinking about either following the DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approach to Stopping Hypertension. That’s a way of eating that came out from the American Heart Association. Or considering something very similar to that, the Mediterranean diet. The main difference between the two is the DASH diet is a little bit lower in sodium content, which is good for everybody whether they have high blood pressure or not.
The big concept is trying to get more fresh food in one’s diet, and in particular, more fiber. It turns out fiber is so, so important in that it decreases inflammation. Inflammation plays a very critical role in the development of plaque, and plaque progression probably plays a critical role in many other disease processes as well. By having more fiber in one’s diet, we can decrease that inflammatory process, and then similarly, being physically active on a regular basis. There are multiple benefits of being physically active, another of which is decreasing inflammation. Inflammation plays a critical role in heart disease and many other disease processes.
Being physically active as much as possible and as frequently as possible, as well as paying attention to nutrition and having a heart-healthy way of eating – whether that be a DASH diet, Mediterranean diet, or a plant-based diet – are all great things for people to do to help lower the risk of potential cardiovascular disease and events.
What are some big heart health misconceptions?
One of the biggest misconceptions is about the use of statin medications and trying to achieve the same goals through diet and exercise. This sort of gets back to that whole concept of inflammation again, where one of the biggest benefits of statin drugs is not actually lowering cholesterol, it’s decreasing the inflammatory process inside the artery wall. The secondary benefit, and still a significant benefit, is lowering cholesterol.
But the majority of people are not aware of that. They often are reluctant, understandably, to want to take statin therapy and think they can accomplish the same goals of risk reduction and cardiovascular risk reduction through just diet and exercise. But that’s just not true for those where statin drugs are appropriate. In addition to wanting people to eat healthily and be physically active, statin drugs are still critically important to lower their risk of cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular events.
What are some of the telltale signs that you’re having heart problems?
The classic signs of having heart problems are that one might have tightness, pressure, and heaviness often, but not always in the center of the chest, often, but not always radiating up into the neck or jaw, and often, but not always down the left arm, sometimes associated with shortness of breath and sweatiness.
Those symptoms of chest discomfort are probably the most common symptoms for both men and women. But women, more so than men, may have some what are often referred to as atypical signs, which I’m not a big fan of using that word, atypical. I’d rather say different signs or other signs. Those can be anywhere from shortness of breath, in particular, shortness of breath with exertion, significant fatigue, significant lightheadedness or dizziness. Those can all be signs of heart disease.
Not uncommonly, these signs can start developing about a month prior to when one presents with a heart attack. These are things that people should definitely listen to their bodies. And if they have any of these signs, make sure they let their doctors know and or seek medical attention so that we can hopefully prevent a heart attack from occurring if they’re heading in that direction.