Haims: Be your own advocate for heart disease and heart attacks
Unless you have overt symptoms of a heart concerns, getting testing can be challenging. Many medical providers monitor risk factors for heart disease by watching people’s cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, body-mass index and suggesting people quit smoking. Unfortunately, these risk factors do not always paint a full picture of one’s true risk.
For many years, I have had my primary care physician monitor my blood — not with just the common complete blood count test, but with about five or six different blood panels. I chose to do this not for concerns of any one issue, but to give me a better understanding of my overall well-being. So how was it that I experienced a heart attack with no warning signs?
Since my last column about heart attacks, (not cardiac arrest — there’s a distinct difference) my office has received more than a dozen calls and emails from people sharing their stories of similar situations. Some stories had happier endings than others. But overall, the consensus was that people had thought they had been proactive in monitoring their risk of heart disease only to find out that situations were far graver than they had anticipated. So, how could this be?
The answer may very well be that many medical providers rely too much on the traditional risk factors indicated by blood tests. Additionally, navigating insurance hurdles and costs muddy things up a bit.
Regardless, the answer to addressing concerns of potential risk factors lies solely on each of us. We must be our own advocate and educate ourselves and loved ones on not just risk factors, but also symptoms and courses of correction.
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Before I proceed further, I feel I should make a clarification — heart attacks are not the same as cardiac arrest. Therefore, the symptoms that we need to be aware of are different. Heart attack symptoms are like a plumbing issue while cardiac arrest is an electrical issue.
Symptoms of a heart attack can be both overt and subtle, even “silent.” Often signs may consist of chest pain, a feeling of shortness of breath and or dizziness, breaking out in a cold sweat, discomfort in one of your arms, back or neck, and even a feeling of nausea or vomiting. These are often subtle signs. While perceptions of someone grabbing their chest and being in extreme pain before collapsing to the ground do occur, these obvious signs are not always present.
Symptoms of a cardiac arrest are overt. Often, signs include disrupted or stalled breathing and a loss of consciousness. While warning signs can be present weeks earlier, they are sometimes difficult to gauge. Chest pain is most common among men, while women often report shortness of breath. Unexplained fainting, dizziness, fatigue and/or a racing heart are also commonly experienced.
If you want to be proactive in addressing concerns of a heart attack, you must not only be aware of your cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, and physically activity, but you must also speak to your medical provider about other types of testing and preventive therapies.
The following two tests may provide more clarity on your risk factors:
A coronary calcium scan: This is a low-radiation imaging test that identifies plaque deposits in the blood vessels. This test is often covered by insurance and is paid for by Medicare. If your insurance does not cover it or your provider gives you hard time about getting it, you can pay for the test yourself. Here in the mountain towns, the test costs between $100 and $200. That’s a nominal amount to pay for such valuable insight to your risk.
A coronary CT angiography: This imaging provides high-resolution images of your heart and its blood vessels and is used to check for narrowed or blocked arteries in your heart caused by plaque. This is a more expensive test often costing between $1,500 and $2,000. However, while this imaging procedure is often covered by insurance, you may have to undergo other testing before this will be covered.
These two heart scans may provide results that will motivate people who are at risk to make important lifestyle changes and follow treatment plans.
There are many factors that are used to determine one’s risks for heart disease. First and foremost, diet and lifestyle are easiest to control and monitor. But, if that is not enough and you still have concerns, you must advocate for yourself. Speak to you medical providers about options available and know that there is testing available that can provide greater detail of your risk. Educate yourself and ask questions.
Please read my next column addressing cardiac arrest. A little education of what to do and understanding of tools available can save a life.
Judson Haims is the owner of Visiting Angels Home Care in Eagle County. He can be contacted at VisitingAngels.com/comtns or by calling 970-328-5526.