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American Heart Month in February seeks to raise awareness of heart disease — the top cause of death in America for men, women and people of most racial and ethnic groups.
Heart disease is a catch-all phrase that refers to several conditions that affect your heart's structure and function. Coronary artery disease is the most common form of heart disease.
A heart patient at the Swedish Heart & Vascular Institute shares his success story.
Every February for American Heart Month, our focus turns to raising awareness of heart disease and the toll it takes on the lives of millions of people across the country. Despite the best efforts of health experts everywhere, the number of heart-related deaths has continued to rise steadily for more than three decades, according to the American College of Cardiology.
“Each year, heart disease kills millions of Americans despite ongoing work and education that occurs by patients, families, physicians and those in health care. But that doesn’t have to happen,” says Medical Director of Structural Heart and Valve Disease for Swedish, Sameer Gafoor, M.D. “There is no time like the present to improve our situation and educate ourselves on how to lead better lives. The future is within our grasp. We have the opportunity to make a life-changing difference.”
What is heart disease?
Heart disease is a catch-all term that refers to several conditions that affect your heart’s function and structure, including coronary artery disease, valve disorders, heart failure and coronary heart disease.
Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease. It occurs when plaque made up of fat, cholesterol and other substances accumulates in your arteries and block blood flow to your heart. Chest pain, blood clots and an increased potential for heart attack can all result without treatment and healthy lifestyle changes.
Realities of heart disease
Heart disease is not a temporary condition. Once you have it, you have it for life. Some procedures such as bypass surgery or valve repair and replacement can help your blood circulate more easily and alleviate your symptoms. But if your arteries are damaged from heart disease, the damage remains even after treatment.
“Heart disease can affect someone’s life in a wide variety of ways,” says Dr. Gafoor. “There are the physical symptoms of heart disease, such as chest pain, shortness of breath or passing out suddenly. Then there is a decrease in energy or reduced ability to do daily activities. For many people, this decreases their quality of life, including their ability to work or spend time with family.”
These statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detail the sobering reality of heart disease in America:
- Heart disease is the number one cause of death for adults of most racial and ethnic groups.
- Every 36 seconds, someone dies from cardiovascular disease.
- Every 40 seconds, someone has a heart attack.
- One in four deaths in the United States is caused by heart disease every year.
- About one in five heart attacks are silent, causing damage.
- Heart-related healthcare services, medicines and lost productivity due to death cost the U.S. billions of dollars a year.
“Someone with heart disease has a significant risk of hospitalization and an increasing number of daily medications – all of which have a significant mental and emotional toll on the patient and their family,” adds Dr. Gafoor.
Who gets heart disease?
“Heart disease can affect anyone,” says Dr. Gafoor. “Whether they’re young or old, thin or overweight, heart disease often does not discriminate. However, we have the ability to monitor, diagnose and treat people – often before they have symptoms. By identifying risk factors we can control we can make a significant difference in preventing acceleration or even onset of heart disease.”
Controllable risk factors for heart disease include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Excessive alcohol consumption
Healthy lifestyle, healthy heart
Remembering the most effective preventive measures is as easy as learning your ABCs with the ABCDEs checklist:
- Alcohol – avoid excessive alcohol use.
- Blood pressure – maintain an average blood pressure of less than 130/80.
- Cholesterol – use polyunsaturated fats, consider a Mediterranean diet and eat plenty of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Diabetes – reduce diabetic risk with a diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, fish and whole grains.
- Exercise – perform 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise such as brisk running, walking, swimming or biking every week.
- Smoking – don’t smoke and you’ll reduce your risk of death from heart disease by two or three times compared to nonsmokers.
“Lifestyle choices can make a difference in your heart health,” says Dr. Gafoor, citing a study of more than 50,000 people in multiple countries. Results showed making positive choices such as not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, regular activity and a balanced diet can lower your risk of heart disease by nearly 50%.
When a healthy lifestyle isn’t enough
Valve disorders are also a form of heart disease. They can be present at birth or develop after a heart infection or heart attack.
When working correctly, your heart's valves open to let blood flow from your heart. Then they close to keep the blood from going backward. When your valves don't work as they should, it can cause blood leaks, blockages and backflow. Minor valve problems may not need treatment. Others may require medical procedures, medication or surgery to replace or repair the valve.
Life-changing care from the experts at the Swedish Heart & Vascular Institute
“I was a pediatric open-heart surgery patient way back when in 1957. So, my heart has pretty much been an issue all my life,” says Dave B, a heart patient at the Swedish Heart & Vascular Institute.
Dave successfully managed his heart condition throughout his childhood and into adulthood. Then in 2021, he had a heart attack. Testing done during treatment determined Dave had aortic stenosis, a heart valve disorder.
The aorta carries blood from your heart into the rest of your body through the aortic valve. Aortic stenosis prevents the aortic valve from opening fully and reduces the blood flow to your heart. It can cause chest pain, difficulty breathing and extreme fatigue.
“I’m a pretty vigorous guy, all my life I’ve been pretty active. I’m pretty rugged,” says Dave. “But I was having trouble breathing. I couldn’t walk up a hill.”
Although he lives in Spokane, Dave felt the experts at Swedish were a better fit for his needs than his local options. He contacted a primary care physician at Swedish who referred him to Dr. Gafoor for further treatment.
“I ended up going over to Seattle multiple times. Lots and lots more testing,” says Dave. “My confidence levels in the Swedish team were very, very high when I got through experiencing their protocols and their people.”
“Heart valve disease kills 25,000 people in the U.S. per year. However, with early detection, this can be addressed and treated,” says Dr. Gafoor. “Our patients are evaluated and treated by a multidisciplinary team of experts who come up with an individualized plan. This may be through medications, open cardiac surgery or through now standard transcatheter-based techniques.”
“I had decided that I did not want to go through open-heart surgery again because I’d been through that when I was a young boy, and I didn’t want to do it,” says Dave. “And then they started talking about this transcatheter aortic valve replacement procedure. What they call TAVR. And so, I started going down that path.”
TAVR is a minimally invasive procedure in which a new valve is inserted into your heart without removing the damaged valve. Once the new valve expands, it pushes the old valve out of the way and begins regulating your blood flow. The results can be life-changing.
“I'm older. I’m forgetful. I make mistakes. But you know that TAVR procedure gave me back a lot of my prior life,” says Dave. “I can move and I can be active and I can be vigorous. I can work on my family’s ranch. I can chop and split firewood and I can build a fence. I can go in the woods and hike a little bit. I can be active again and before I couldn’t.”
“These people saved my life. That’s the way I call it,” adds Dave. “Caring is the really big quality that makes a difference in life. Life is tougher for people who care, but it makes life fuller and richer too. And these people cared. It was palpable. It was real. And I felt it. In every way – in every single way – Swedish measured up and exceeded my expectations and my hopes.”
Find a doctor
If you have questions about heart health, contact the primary care department at Swedish. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.
Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.
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