Eric Van Dusen always felt like a healthy guy.
He never would’ve thought he’d be at such a high risk for having a heart attack, especially at age 43.
Van Dusen, a flight paramedic and past president of the South Dakota EMS Association, had a heart screening at the SDEMSA State Conference in 2017. His results came back much to his surprise.
“I had no symptoms, I’m not overweight, I was in overall good health, but I was red flagged,” Van Dusen said. “So we set up an appointment, and I was surprised to find out I had 95 percent blockage of my left anterior descending artery and circumflex artery.”
Though Van Dusen had not experienced any warning signs, he does have a family history of cardiovascular disease. He encouraged his loved ones to have heart screenings done as well.
Related: Schedule a heart screening
“It definitely raised awareness amongst our family. I brought my sister, my parents, my wife and in-laws all through it,” he said.
In December, doctors felt it was medically necessary for Van Dusen to receive further evaluation. Interventional cardiologist Tom Stys, M.D., at the Sanford Cardiovascular Institute in Sioux Falls, then performed an angiogram and treated Van Dusen’s critical blockage, often referred to as the “widow maker” because of its potential life threatening consequences, with a stent.
“If I would not have had this procedure done I could have very easily died from a massive heart attack within the next year to four or five years,” Van Dusen said.
Cardiovascular disease accounts for nearly one of every three deaths in the United States, claiming more lives each year than all forms of cancer and chronic lung disease combined, according to the American Heart Association.
About 92 million American adults live with some form of cardiovascular disease, and about 2,300 adults die of cardiovascular disease each day.
“The statistics are scary,” Stys said. “The scope of the problem of cardiovascular disease is enormous both from a clinical as well as an economical perspective. We do not do enough to identify disease early and we do not do enough to prevent the disease.”
Coronary heart disease is responsible for almost 44 percent of deaths attributable to cardiovascular disease. Stys says heart screenings primarily aim to identify this disease in particular.
“The consequences of untreated disease are extremely devastating and many people out there don’t know until it’s too late,” Stys said. “That’s the justification of having a heart screening.”
Heart screenings assess a person’s cardiovascular health from a lifestyle perspective, looking closely at blood pressure, body mass index and cholesterol. Coronary calcium scoring is done in appropriate patients with a more serious risk of cardiovascular disease.
“There’s a powerful psychological factor (of having a heart screening) that provides a lot of people an incentive to be more aggressive about lifestyle modification and prevention,” Stys said. “Screening helps identify the proper accommodations needing to be made and also allows us to institute proper medical therapy.”
Stys says that early identification and the institution of appropriate lifestyle or medical interventions can prevent the devastating consequences of advanced cardiovascular disease, such as stroke, heart attack or death.
For patients like Van Dusen, risk factors such as family history and genetics are harder to identify or control. However, Stys says 80 percent of cardiovascular disease is preventable, and that there are many causes of cardiovascular disease that can be controlled. These risk factors include smoking, obesity, poor diet and nutrition, physical inactivity, diabetes and high blood pressure.
A long-term difference
When it comes to getting a heart screening, Stys says it’s never too early. Van Dusen agrees.
“It saved my life,” Van Dusen said. “You don’t know what you don’t know, and it’s better to have the screening done. It’s readily accessible and it’s inexpensive and can make a long-term difference in your life.”
Heart and vascular screenings are available at various Sanford Health locations throughout South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota.
Heart screening at a glance
Your primary care provider can conduct a heart screening at each regular visit. This includes measuring blood pressure, body weight and pulse. A Heart Screen at Sanford Health includes blood pressure and additional measurements: a cardiac calcium score (heart scan or X-ray), EKG, body mass index (BMI), non-fasting cholesterol and Framingham score (10-year risk estimate).
The American Academy of Pediatrics says kids as young as age 3 should have their blood pressure checked, and kids at normal risk should start getting their cholesterol checked between ages 9 and 11. Coronary calcium scoring is done in appropriate patients with a more serious risk of cardiovascular disease. You can check your heart disease risk online or ask your doctor what screenings are right for you.
Did your mother, father, brothers or sisters have heart trouble? Your risk of developing heart disease is higher if you have family members with the disease. Other risk factors include age, bad cholesterol, obesity, smoking and diabetes.
The American Heart Association recommends regular screening for your risk for heart disease at every checkup or at least every two years starting at age 20. Getting a cholesterol test every five years for normal-risk people is also recommended.
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