Heart Health: Don’t Wait For an Emergency
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Published on February 13, 2018

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Heart Health: Don’t Wait For an Emergency

Cardiovascular disease – the No. 1 killer in America – can lead to a number of terrifying outcomes and dramatic situations where seconds count in the face of heart attack and stroke. But equipping yourself with more information – and taking control of the things you can – can make a world of life-saving difference for anyone.

Avera Heart Hospital Planet Heart Nurse Krista Coughlin, RN knows this because she sees it daily. She sees folks who are coming in for their follow-up screenings and who have made the small steps that became big changes.

She’s privy to the fact that while they may have been nervous – what if they find something wrong? – after the test, they were glad they got answers about their vascular and heart health.

“If you have underlying heart or vascular disease, it’s there whether you know it or not. But finding it early, through regular screening exams and working with your doctor, your outcome can be very good,” Coughlin said. “When we see patients for follow-up screenings, we often see amazing changes. It’s not just changes in terms of risk factors, but people who are feeling better.”

Screening Exams and Collaboration

Programs like Planet Heart allow individuals to collaborate more effectively with their family doctors. Coughlin is part of the program’s team at Avera Heart Hospital, and said that when cardiac problems can be addressed before the “damage is done” it serves the lives of patients on two levels.

“We all want more ‘quantity’ in our lives – to live longer, but we also might consider living with less pain, with less stress and fatigue – with a higher quality of life,” she said. “Modern life is busy, stressful and many of us are so focused on caring for others, it’s easy to let our own care – and health – suffer.”

Planet Heart screenings take a close look at calcium deposits in your heart and key blood vessels, as well as other factors. Other steps in the direction of heart health are straightforward, such as:

  • Quitting tobacco use
  • Controlling high blood pressure
  • Losing weight
  • Eating a sensible diet with less processed foods and more whole foods
  • Exercising regularly

“These days, stress is among the most common things that we see, and it can contribute to cardiovascular disease. It tends to impact so many other parts of life – like good rest and diet,” Coughlin said. “Seeing a doctor regularly is critical as well. Together, you and your provider can devise approaches that will help you achieve better overall health as well as better cardiac health.”

Fear and Changes

Having counseled many patients, Coughlin understands how daunting it can be to “overhaul” so much of your life.

“We do see people who smoke, need to lose weight and exercise, and I understand how overwhelming it can be. That’s why we say start with one thing – just do one,” she said. “The changes for the good will come over time – you won’t change overnight. Change little things and keep going.”

Heart and vascular screenings are recommended for men 40 and older, and women who are 45 should also have their screening scheduled. For either gender, a family history of heart disease or heart attack can point toward having the exams done earlier. Coughlin also encouraged everyone to be aware of the early heart attack symptoms that can be mild, but indicate the need to get to a doctor and start down the road of better health.

Those signs include:

  • Pain, pressure, tightness or heaviness in the chest area
  • Aches, burning or squeezing in chest – or pain in the jaw or neck
  • Tingling or numbness in either arm
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Dizziness or light-headed feelings
  • Cold, clammy sweats or more frequent excessive sweating
  • Increases in anxiety or shortness of breath unrelated to activity
  • A feeling of fullness – just like you’d have after a large meal – when you have not eaten.

These symptoms could indicate an underlying cardiac issue and should be discussed with your doctor.

“We know it’s scary to consider a heart condition,” Coughlin said. “But it’s better to learn the signs and do something about them early. You don’t want to learn about them when you have had a stroke or heart attack.”

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