Heart doctor: Maintaining a healthy heart starts with you

First, get good information. Then make heart health a lifestyle

Healthy food on a heart shape cutting board on a rustic wooden table.

Maintaining a healthy heart is always going to ultimately be a responsibility that falls on you.

Making good heart choices involves having good information. It involves asking the right questions and getting the right answers.

This applies both to those seeking ways to prevent problems and those who want to solve them.

“What we say matters but much more important is a person’s motivation,” said Dr. Taylor Dowsley, a cardiologist specializing in nuclear cardiology and adult cardiac disease at Sanford Heart and Vascular Clinic in Fargo.

“Some of our patients listen to us and believe us but it still can be hard to get the motivation to do all the things that can help you reduce the risk factors.”

Healthy hearts at the beginning

As a cardiologist Dr. Dowsley will often advise those who want to take a proactive approach. They want information that provides them and their families with insight into maintaining a healthy heart.

It starts with focusing on monitoring the things we can control. High blood pressure, high cholesterol and the onset of diabetes can make one more susceptible to coronary disease. So can smoking.

“While realizing that there is a genetic component to this that we can’t change, seeing a physician regularly is important,” Dr. Dowsley said. “If you need to be treated for high blood pressure, make sure you do it.”

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On top of that, controlling risk factors is centered on a healthy lifestyle that includes a diet that steers toward fruits and vegetables and away from foods high in carbs and fat.

Exercise helps a healthy heart

Regular exercise also plays an important role in controlling risk factors.

“Regular exercise is shown to help people live longer,” Dr. Dowsley said. “It doesn’t have to be real intense — anything from a brisk walk on up. If you can get about 150 minutes a week — 30 minutes a day, five times a week, or however you want to do it — it can help you have a healthier heart.”

Living longer is a message that hits the mark for many interested in a healthier heart. Additionally, outside traditional lifestyle factors, Dowsley suggests preventive screening.

“The most important part of screening for patients with elevated risk is the calcium score,” Dr. Dowsley said. “It’s a heart screen — just a quick little CT scan. It’s like an early detection. You can see if there’s any plaque building up in the arteries or not. That can make a significant difference.”

When to be concerned

When heart troubles are suspected, there are two scenarios:

One is deciding it’s time to schedule an appointment.

The other is deciding it’s time to go to the emergency room.

Generally speaking, if discomforts like shortness of breath or chest pain go away when one stops and rests, it’s time to make an appointment.

“The typical pattern would be that they exert themselves and they get the symptoms and when they stop and rest they’re fine,” Dr. Dowsley said. “That’s the kind of thing where you call your physician and schedule an appointment. If you get chest pain or really bad shortness of breath out of the blue when you’re just sitting there and it doesn’t go away, that’s the time to see immediate care.”

Heart health can be a collaborative effort, particularly within families. Perhaps someone close to you is slowing down noticeably, or they’re not able to do the kind of activities they normally do. Maybe they’re reluctant to admit they have a symptom.

“You might want to talk to them and suggest they talk to their doctor,” Dr. Dowsley said. “Maybe they’ll go through with it if someone else is noticing a difference.”

Taking a personal interest in your heart is always going to be the first step, regardless of other factors.

“When I’m talking to a patient, I use data to support what I tell them — that this has been proven,” Dr. Dowsley said. “You can tell people that exercise is good for them, but it’s more effective if you can offer proof. Quality of life is very important and so is being able to tell them they’re likely to live longer.”

Heart health at a glance

What is a healthy heart?

Anyone can be at risk of heart disease, but blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and smoking can all play a role in heart health.

What can you do to maintain a healthy heart?

Eat properly and exercise. Replacing high-carb, high-fat items with more fruits and vegetables can help. Exercising for 150 minutes a week helps minimize the risk of heart disease.

What is preventive screening?

Heart tests can play a valuable role in helping you to take control of your long-term health. These tests give you and your provider a better look at your risk for heart disease and help you plan for your future heart care.

When should I make an appointment?

When uncharacteristic shortness of breath or chest pain arrives when you exert yourself but goes away when you rest, it’s time to seek an appointment.

When is it time to seek emergency care?

When chest pain or severe shortness of breath appears for no apparent reason and does not go away, it is time to seek emergency care.

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Posted In Healthy Living, Heart, Specialty Care