One of the best ways to reduce your risk of heart disease is by getting regular medical checkups with your doctor. Routine tests and screenings can help detect heart issues and warning signs before they cause more serious complications.
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So, how do you know where to start when it comes to keeping your heart healthy and preventing heart disease?
Working with your doctor is key. They can help you understand any risks you may have and how your risk factors may impact your heart health. They can also offer advice on smart lifestyle choices and monitor you to make sure any risk factors are kept under control.
One of the best ways to avoid a disease is to try and prevent it from occurring in the first place. This is known as preventive health. It’s a crucial way of reducing your risk of chronic health conditions or diagnosing any issues early on, before they cause more serious problems that are harder to treat.
This is especially true for heart disease, as some major risk factors like high blood pressure (hypertension) and high cholesterol don’t have obvious signs or symptoms. You could have one or both of these conditions for years without knowing about it. Other types of heart disease may also remain undiagnosed until they cause serious complications.
The best way to know if you have any heart disease risk factors is to see your doctor and to get examined and tested. Once you know your results, you can work with your doctor and your healthcare team on any steps you need to take to keep your heart as healthy as possible.
Symptoms your doctor needs to know about
Be sure to tell your doctor about any symptoms that could be a sign of heart disease. While some symptoms may be due to some other cause, it’s still important to let your doctor know if you experience:
- chest pain, what it feels like, and how often you experience it
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- heart palpitations or other changes in your heart rhythm
- fatigue or weakness
- fainting spells
- shortness of breath
Be honest with your doctor
While your age and weight are important pieces of information related to your heart disease risk, it’s equally important that your doctor has a clear understanding of your full medical history and lifestyle habits. The only way your doctor will be able to gather this information is if you share it with them. It’s important to be open and honest with your doctor about your:
- eating habits
- physical activity level
- sleep patterns
- alcohol and/or drug use
- smoking history (and current smoking habits, if applicable)
- medications and supplements you take
- family health history (especially related to heart disease)
- previous or ongoing health conditions or illnesses
Together with any test results, this information will help create a clear picture of your health and lifestyle. Additionally, it can also help your doctor put together a safe and effective treatment plan for you.
For instance, drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure. But, if your doctor thinks you abstain from alcohol or consume very little, you may be prescribed antihypertensive medications that may interact with alcohol. The same is true for other medications or supplements you take.
A regular checkup allows your doctor to carefully assess the health of your heart. During a routine checkup, your doctor will likely assess:
- your body mass index (BMI), a measurement used to determine heart disease risk
- blood pressure
- pulse rate
- oxygen saturation level
- your heart by listening to it with a stethoscope for signs of an arrhythmia, valve disease, or other cardiac conditions
Based on information gathered at a routine checkup, your doctor may order certain tests or screenings to get a clearer picture of your heart health.
If your doctor diagnoses any heart issues or heart disease risk factors, they can work with you to create a treatment plan to bolster your heart health.
They can also monitor you to ensure your heart is staying healthy. If anything changes, they’ll be able to alter your treatment plan before any serious complications arise.
Many doctors recommend yearly blood tests to coincide with your annual physical exam. These tests can detect markers for heart disease as well as in-depth information about your overall health.
To get an accurate picture of your heart health, your doctor may order the following blood tests:
- Cholesterol test (lipid panel): This test measures the levels of fats (lipids) in your blood, including LDL (low-density lipoprotein), HDL (high-density lipoprotein), triglycerides, and total cholesterol.
- Complete blood count (CBC): A CBC blood test is a common blood test that measures the levels of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets in your blood. This test can also measure levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that, at high levels, can raise the risk of heart disease and stroke.
- Comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP): A CMP blood test measures the levels of substances in your blood that are related to kidney and liver function, as well as the levels of electrolytes and fluids. A CMP test also tests glucose as well as creatinine levels, which is part of the kidney function test. If levels are outside the normal range, it could be an indicator of heart disease.
- Fasting glucose (sugar): A fasting glucose test can detect high levels of glucose in your blood, which could be a sign of type 2 diabetes, a heart disease risk factor.
- Creatinine blood test: A creatinine blood test measures the level of creatinine in the blood — a waste product that’s eliminated by the kidneys. High levels could indicate reduced kidney function, which could affect your heart health.
If you’ve been prescribed medications to lower your cholesterol, you may be advised to have more frequent blood tests to assess whether your treatment is working.
Other heart health screening tests
A blood pressure check is also key when it comes to assessing your heart health. That’s because high blood pressure (hypertension) often has no obvious symptoms, yet it’s a major risk factor for both heart disease and stroke.
What’s a healthy blood pressure reading?
For an adult, a healthy blood pressure reading is one that’s below 120/80 mm Hg and above 90/60 mm Hg.
Although an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) isn’t part of a standard checkup, your doctor may order this test if they want to get more detailed information on how your heart is beating. An ECG uses electrodes placed on the skin to measure the heart’s electrical activity, revealing helpful information about the heart’s rate and rhythm.
An ECG may also be performed as part of a cardiac stress test. This test is done by having you walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bicycle to get your heart rate up. The main goal is to assess how your heart functions when it’s being exerted.
If screening tests suggest that you may be at a higher risk for heart disease, your doctor will likely make recommendations on lifestyle changes, or possibly prescribe certain medications and other treatments.
Your doctor may help you create a heart disease prevention plan by:
- Setting goals for weight loss (if necessary), or daily exercise: Having specific goals can help keep you accountable, but again it’s important that you’re honest about what you’re doing in between doctor visits.
- Providing nutritional support: Your doctor may prescribe the services of a dietitian to help you plan your meals and make changes to the foods you eat.
- Helping you quit smoking, if you smoke: Smoking is a leading risk factor for heart disease, and doctors are well aware that many people need assistance to quit permanently. Your doctor may prescribe medications and recommend programs to help you quit for good.
- Prescribing medication: If lifestyle changes don’t help lower your risk factors, your doctor may decide to prescribe certain medications to lower the chance of heart disease complications.
If you need treatment due to a blockage in one of your coronary arteries — a condition known as coronary artery disease (CAD) — your doctor may discuss options, such as bypass surgery or stenting, to improve blood flow within the heart.
Your doctor would then refer you to a cardiologist (a doctor who specializes in heart disease), who would oversee the treatment of your heart and vascular system.
If your doctor lets you know that you’re at high risk for heart disease, there are important questions to ask. For instance, you’ll want to know:
- What exactly is my risk of a heart attack?
- What lifestyle changes can I take to improve my heart health?
- What dietary changes should I make, such as monitoring my sodium intake?
- Do I need to lose weight? If so, what should my goal weight be?
- How much exercise should I get each day or week, and are there any restrictions on what I can do?
- Can you help me stop smoking? How do I start?
- Should I start taking medications, such as statins, blood pressure drugs, or blood thinners?
- Should I monitor my blood pressure at home and how often? What should my blood pressure reading be?
- Should I start seeing a cardiologist?
If you receive a diagnosis of heart disease, it will be helpful to ask your doctor or cardiologist the following:
- Are there other tests that I need?
- What are my treatment options?
- Can I still carry on doing all my usual daily activities, or do I need to make changes?
- Do I need surgery?
- If I have surgery, what will my recovery be like and should I participate in cardiac rehabilitation?
- How will heart disease affect my overall health, including things like my kidney function?
- What is my prognosis?
Getting regular checkups is key when it comes to reducing your risk of heart disease. The screenings and tests your doctor orders can help detect heart issues and warning signs early on, before they cause serious complications.
Also, if you have risk factors beyond your control, like advancing age or a family history of heart disease, the advice and care you get from your doctor could be a lifesaving intervention that’s beyond what you could manage on your own.
Keep in mind that there’s more to preventing heart disease than seeing your doctor regularly. It’s imperative that you follow your doctor’s advice and make sure you get clear answers to all your questions.